Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hank Aaron Lovefest

On Thursday, Melvin and I (with Watson in tow, a welcome addition) got back to the Byways routine, sight-seeing by day and a ballgame at night. We have had days without baseball on previous trips, but that was usually because of the distance between games and some times the uncooperative schedules of consecutive teams. The three days off for the conference was unique.

The festivities associated with the home opener of the Mobile Bay Bears was anticipated in advance of the trip to be the highlight. The team plays in Hank Aaron Stadium, named for the Mobile native and long-time career (755) home-run leader. During the off-season, the Bay Bears moved Hammerin' Hank's childhood home to the ballpark and the ribbon-cutting was scheduled for before the game. Pretty Cool. We knew early on that Ozzie Smith, who also comes from Mobile, would be present. As days went by, additional players were announced and our excitement grew, especially when we read 81-year-old Willie Mays, also an Alabama native, was coming. In the end, seven of the 68 living members of the Hall of Fame made the pilgrimage to honor Aaron. In addition to Mays and Smith, Bob Feller, Rickey Henderson, Bruce Sutter and Reggie Jackson (below) were in attendance, the last announced only that day.

The commissioner of baseball and the president of the baseball hall of fame also made the trek, as did members of the Arizona Diamondbacks front office. Mere mortals from baseball included Met great Cleon Jones, Lance Johnson and Frank Bolling. Jones and Bolling are sons of Alabama and Johnson went to college in the state. Jones and Johnson have significance to Mets fans, of which I am one. Jones was a significant part of the 1968 world champion "Amazin' Mets," including making the final catch in the series against the Orioles. He was also removed from a mid-season game that year by manager Gil Hodges, allegedly for failing to hustle although both later denied that account, an incident that fired up a team that was not expected to win it all. Johnson had a monster season in 1996 and still holds the Mets single-season record for hits, with 227, and triples, with 21. Jose Reyes is now the record holder for at bats (696, in 2005) and David Wright surpassed Johnson when he had 334 total bases in 2008.

Melvin, Watson and I got to Mobile too late for the invitation-only dedication outside Aaron's boyhood home. (We assumed that arrived at the Baseball Byways home office after we hit the road.) The ceremony inside the stadium was like most love-fests. Other than Sutter's obtuse comment about going to see the USS Alabama the next day, it was nothing but praise for Aaron as a ball player and a man. Even Rickey's comments seemed to make sense and I swear, he used the first-person singular. One quibble: the hall of famers were brought into the stadium in antique cars. If they had instead all taken one turn around the track in a convertible, as Willie did, more fans would have had a better chance at seeing the seven greats.

After the festivities, the Bay Bears hosted the Birmingham Barons. Matt Long, the visiting starter, didn't stay long after allowing ten hits in three innings. The home team was up 6-1 by the time he left and the final score was 7-2, with 14 hits for Mobile. Wes Roemer, pitching for the Bay Bears, gave up just four hits over seven innings, striking out eight. Mobile also fielded well. There were several dramatic catches, most notably LF Ollie Linton's diving catch in foul territory in the fifth. The win got the Bay Bears back to .500. (Nobody called C Collin Cowgill "Cowgirl" either, as we heard a week earlier in Montgomery.)

MiLB Reports: Recap Box Score

Hank Aaron Stadium is another basic poured-concrete ballpark. There is one unique feature; all of the suites are at field level with even the best seats--Melvin grabbed first row early--up a level. The food offerings were slightly better than typical. We were famished by the time all the festivities were over, having not eaten since late-morning. We got to Middendorf's 15 minutes after it opened at 10:30 and by the time we left, most of the tables in the front rooms were full. Many people ordered what we guessed to be the house special, a ginormous pile of fried catfish. We ate more delicately. If we dined at the place a block closer to the highway, we could have had coon meat.

Between Middendorf's and Mobile, we stopped at the UCM Museum. More a tourist "trap" (we went there with full volition) than a museum, it features dioramas with moving features and faux and creative taxidermy. Mostly it's room after room of cast-offs, although there are couple of operable, vintage pin ball machines and a mechanical fortune teller. Sister Claire Veaux informed me, among other pearls of wisdom, my lucky color is bruised banana brown. In a way, the museum is just a big set up for the shop, full of "funny" stuff. There was a very large recipe book of southern cooking and when I checked the index, I found perhaps ten recipes for coon. Since they were in alphabetical order, the last listing was, "wine pairings with." And to think I settled for catfish, shrimp and pork for the past week.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When in Rome

…do as the Romans do, and when at home, do as the Houmans do. (Photograph of controversial 1929 gift from Il Duce to the city of Rome, Georgia, from our 2007 trip.) While Watson nursed a mild hang-over, Melvin and I spent the morning at the conference. We then all headed off for Houma, Louisiana, via the Huey P. Long Bridge. (Actually, it is one of several bridges named for the former Louisiana governor, senator and progressive-minded dictator who built over a hundred of them in his relatively short time in office.)

The 1935 Mississippi River crossing is a unique steel through-truss bridge, with a two-track rail line down the middle and a two-lane (US 90) highway on each side. The travel lanes were constructed at just nine-feet each but are currently being widened. I bet some folk will be nostalgic after the project is complete in 2013, because the narrowness of the lanes, the height of the bridge (153-foot clearance) and particularly steep grades at each end create an exciting driving experience. Although the highway ascents and descents are extreme, trains cannot climb a comparable grade so the railroad trestle continues long after drivers return to earth, almost three times further then the highway bridge.

Houma was just a pit-stop—lunch at Abear’s (“Hébert’s,” get it?) Café––before heading down the bayou to Chauvin, Louisiana, to see the Kenny Hill Sculpture Garden. Hill, a bricklayer by trade, spent just over a decade constructing 100 concrete figures into a personal cosmology of Christianity, Americana and self. About a decade ago, he reportedly abandoned his art, his religion and his lawn care, the last resulting in the parish (county) evicting him from the land. Hill knocked the head off of (a) Jesus and took to the road on foot.

Watson, Melvin and I returned to New Orleans and had a short rest. We then went out for a late dinner at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits‎, in the Bywater section of the city, an excellent suggestion by a friend. Patrons enter first a retail liquor store and proceed through a deli counter and kitchen to the rear yard, where there is a grill. We shared a couple bottles of white wine; grilled shrimp, ceviche and a short rib from the grill; and from the deli, a "Bacchaletta" (Tuscan ham, pan-fried pancetta, Greek olives and swiss on ciabatta) and a "Holyfield" (arugula, goat cheese, truffled portobellos and oven-dried tomatoes with white truffle oil). In the far corner, The Mark Weliky Trio helped set the mood.

Some psychologists might compare the progression from street to back yard to a shift from the conscious mind to the unconscious, especially after dark. In any case it is an escape from everyday stress into an oasis of relaxation. For me, it was a highlight of the trip that couldn't even be spoiled by my saying something inane when, "I don't feel a sexual attraction," would have sufficed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Monday, and then Monday

I have averaged 10:20 per scheduled day of work since Melvin's and my cross-country tour last summer and I headed into this trip fairly exhausted. This led to malapropisms and other nonsensical comments, including my tendency to refer to any day in the past as "Monday." Now somewhat rested, it appears we saw the Biscuits on Thursday, Braves on Friday and Zephyrs on Saturday, making Sunday the first full day of the conference. My plans for the evening never gelled--by now, what else would I expect?--but that was for the best. I had already been asleep for an hour when Mel texted he was finally done for the day, an almost algebraic formula for how late he worked and how early I hit the sheets.

Monday was really Monday, and better things started happening. Melvin's girlfriend, who I will call Watson in case she guest blogs, flew into town. After my morning sessions, we met for an unintentionally leisurely lunch at The Green Goddess, which is too small for the demand generated by the food. Since expansion seems not possible, the kitchen is just going to need to dumb down the cooking to fit the room. Watson had shrimp and grits and I had a bowl of applewood-smoked duck breast soup and the Cuban Luau sandwich (above). I had a bottle of the “Spice Routes” (Route des épices) Rye Peppercorn, a very tasty beer from the Dieu du Ciel microbrewery in Saint-Jérôme Quebec, about a half-hour northwest of Montréal. (Thanks to Melvin for the details.)

I returned to the Morial Convention Center (which served as an evacuation point after Hurricane Katrina; photograph by FEMA) for afternoon sessions. Watson poked around the French Quarter. Mel kept working. Later, Melvin, Watson and I were joined by others for an excellent dinner at Cochon. (Photograph by Tammy Camp.) We started with interesting cocktails, followed by flights of rye or bourbon. Watson attacked the namesake dish. Melvin ordered rabbit and dumplings. I had the brisket. Lots of shop talk, but it was the conspiratorial and gossipy kind, so we had a grand old time. We finished the evening with a round of shots, corn-mash whiskey tricked up so you can't tell you are drinking moonshine

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Slight Winds

As noted, Melvin's work day in New Orleans was starting earlier than earlier planned. We left Jackson too early to have breakfast at Peaches', one of three soul food places in town we could have but did not eat at the night before. We also passed Manchac Lousiana too early for lunch at Middendorf's, a highly touted fish store and restaurant. An uneventful drive distinguished only by the section of I-55 built entirely on piles above a landscape that is water even when it isn't. We pulled into the Big Easy on time, primary objective accomplished.

Melvin went to work a conference I was also attending. I settled into the folk art-filled apartment of a friend who was not in town, picked up my registration packet, confirmed there were no (free) sessions on Saturday and went for a long walk down Magazine Street and through the Victorian homes and lush foliage of the Garden District. My destinations were three: the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, one of the many above-ground cities of the dead unique (to my knowledge) to New Orleans; Mahoney's po' boy shop; and the new home of another friend, still under reconstruction. Oh, and I needed to pick up a roll of toilet paper, which I thankfully noticed before leaving my borrowed pad.

Although my guidebook said the cemetery was open 7:00-2:30 except Sunday, it in fact closes at noon on Saturday's. Plans dissolving before my eyes was becoming the unpleasant theme of the trip. Mahoney's did not disappoint, however. The catfish po' boy and fried green tomatoes were greaseless, as I had read. Since Mel was going to be tied up at the conference too late to allow dinner anywhere but at that night's ballgame, I also polished off a slice of the Sweet Potato Crunch pie and a couple pints of Abita lager. Fortified, I checked out the duplex "shotgun" a buddy bought a few months ago for mid-five figures. It needs work but that is still a somewhat boggling price for someone who lives in a city where studio co-ops in less popular neighborhoods start at a hundred grand more. Speaking of boggling prices, I then paid $1.30 for a roll of no-brand bathroom tissue in a corner store with more iron bars than the average city jail.

Not too long after, Mel called or texted that he and a colleague would be free at 4:30 and we could squeeze in dinner before the six o'clock start. To the degree the evening rush hour permitted, we rushed off to Charlie's Seafood in Hanrahan. Still full from lunch, I dined light; a Caesar salad with friend oysters. Besides its coming recommended, I picked this restaurant because of its proximity to Zephyrs Stadium. However, Google Map--which unlike Mapquest has never left me down--put the ballpark somewhere it ain't and we went east when we wanted to go west and arrived in the third inning, late for the second night in a row.

We had great seats, first row behind home plate. I applaud the Zephyrs for naming their stadium eponymously instead of for a bank or telecommunications company, but that's about all I can say nice about the ball park. Although downtown parks are the trend, Zephyrs Stadium is in the next town over, surrounded by surface parking lots. Architecturally it fell well short of what we're used to one level below the majors. We didn't see any particularly interesting food, odd in a town where every corner grocery serves up po' boys. Melvin reports decent enough beer. As for the game itself, the Round Rock Express came chugging down the track and never looked back.
Although the Express share a name with part-owner and hall of fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, it was hitting that won the game for them. CF Jason Bourgeois, RF Brian Bogusevic and 3B Drew Meyer combined for eight hits in 13 at bats (.615) scoring five of the eventual six runs. Zephyrs starter Brain Lawrence gave up eight hits in five innings but only two runs. The real damage came in the sixth when the Express scored four runs on four hits and a walk off reliever Chris Lawrence. Andy Van Hekken (above, pitching to Slidell Louisiana native Logan Morrison), starting for the visitors, also went five innings but the five hits he allowed was all of the Zephyrs offence and no one got beyond second base. Three Express relievers joined in the shut-out.

MiLB Reports: Recap Box Score

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mississippi (Not) on My Mind

Though there is apparently no connection between Jackson, Mississippi, and the nigh-legendary urban-hillbilly sect the Jackson Whites (or, for that matter, the Jackson Five), I still found myself thinking about pretty much anything and anywhere other than where we wound up tonight. The capital of Mississippi just doesn’t hold much fascination for me, I guess—even though crossing into this state means that I’ve been to all but two of the lower 48: Arkansas and New Mexico, y’all are on notice. [Edit: I got ahead of myself. Now that we've been to Louisiana it's down to two states, but when I wrote this it was still three. I know y'all really care.]

But in fairness to this blighted commonwealth, this whole trip is slightly rushed on account of the tight schedule and the need to be in New Orleans by an increasingly early hour on Saturday morning, on account of my job. So we didn’t linger in Montgomery—apart from Martha’s, I’m not sure we missed too much. We saw a notable number of abandoned gas stations, restaurants, and other dispiriting shacks along the way.

We made decent time over to Selma. When I remarked that I thought it was farther away, Rob said, “It is if you walk it.” Which was a reminder of the day’s history lesson. But first we wanted breakfast. The Downtowner—essentially the only place to eat downtown that was open—had just stopped serving breakfast while they prepared for lunch, but they obliged these lazy and effete northerners with a couple of sandwiches. Ordinarily I would say that Selma has apparently seen better days, but that might not be true. It may have seen happier economic times, but of course there were other issues.

After a bit of misdirection involving an Israeli flag and a pitbull barking at us from the second story of a mostly vacant shell of an office building…

…we found the new location of the Voting Rights Museum, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the infamous “Bloody Sunday” of March 7, 1965, erupted. The museum is only a semipro affair, but the story it tells remains shocking and vibrant—especially since you can look from some of the photographs to the very street outside and recognize bits of the landscape.

Back on the road, we found about thismuch to say about Demopolis, Meridian, and the other points en route. Perhaps the high point was crossing the Chunky River, but I slept through it.

In Jackson, we met a friend of a friend—an architecture professor who guided us in a slightly-too-leisurely fashion to the Auditorium, the only high-school multipurpose room that to my knowledge has been converted into a plausible restaurant. Catfish, grits, andouille, shrimp, beer, comeback sauce, etc. etc., and before you know it the game started ten minutes ago.

What, a baseball game? There was a baseball game?

In Mississippi, baseball is basically just something to do when there’s no football or NASCAR on. Actually, there were a couple TVs at the stadium tuned to car racing, so it may be an even worse situation than I think. It was another chilly night, but at least we were closer to properly dressed for it. The Mississippi Braves hosted the Tennessee Smokies, the Double-A affiliate of the Cubs. The Smokies brought along shortstop Starlin Castro, who had spectacular spring training in Arizona but for us went just 1 for 5—hey, he’s just barely 20. Half the fun is his name alone, which conjours both the creator of '70s comic-book space operas and a certain Cuban shortstop.

This was actually a good, close game, seesawing along to a 5-4 final. But it was still a Braves game, which meant there was that ugly logo, that blasted tomahawk-chop groan, and lots and lots of cheerleaders—wait, that last item is another Mississippians-missing-football thing, not really a Braves thing. Still, there were a lot of teenagers in short shorts waggling pompoms, which isn’t my understanding of what Abner Doubleday had in mind—at least not when he created baseball. If in fact, he even did that.

Anyway, we wound up spending a surprising amount of time watching the eyeballs get ready.

Yep, those people are dressed like eyeballs and getting ready to run across the field as part of a between-innings promotion.

In the event, one of the orbs cheated (by running straight across the field instead of along the warning track as instructed) and had to be plucked out.

We sat back for the rest of the game, as the temperature continued to plummet.

Montgomery Cliff Notes

Melvin and I arrived in Montgomery with a plan: rent a car, check into the motel, lunch at Martha’s Place (“jaw dropping peach cobbler”), maybe the Hank Williams museum, opening day of the Montgomery Biscuits, and then the Love Shack for what was reported to be an eclectic crowd and “white” (not tomato based) barbeque. But Martha had locked the door for two days so she could appear on The 700 Club, a Christian television talk show my mother’s parents were fond of in Ohio. Her appearance on the show (Bio' and 19 minute feature here and here, respectively.) is no doubt a testament to the soul food we might have had, but that didn’t fill our bellies and the Love Shack got bumped up to lunch.

Walking in from the warm and humid afternoon, the Love Shack was pitch black, not so much a barbeque joint as the kind of bar where it is wise to keep track of the back door. After our eyes adjusted, we had to adjust our expectations as well. There was no sign of the mysterious white barbeque, the main ingredients for which are mayonnaise and cider vinegar. We might have gone on to Plan C if it wasn’t already mid-afternoon, so Mel got a popcorn shrimp po’ boy and fried green tomatoes. I ordered what was billed as a Philly cheese steak but the meat was wrong, as it so often is, and the whole debate over Cheez Whiz versus provolone was moot; maybe that stuff on top was white barbeque sauce.

Hunger is the best relish and, washed down with a couple lagers apiece, lunch was just fine. Then Diane, the bar maid and everything else out front, cold cocked us with Kamikaze shooters. She also gave one to the biker at the bar who not only wisely refused to drink it but had never even heard of such a drink. People order these things by the pitcher? We exited into an afternoon that somehow had become impossibly bright. Back at the motel, Mel caught up on work and I passed out, the kamikaze being stronger than my nap on the plane.

The Montgomery Biscuits, the Double-A Southern League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, play in Riverwalk Stadium. The ball park includes part of the former 1898 offices of the Western Railway of Alabama, with sympathetic new construction and vernacular touches like ceiling fans above the suite seating. The ownership seems to have found the right mix of price points from lawn seating to box seats to private party areas and luxury suites. As the late arrivals filed in, it was about three-quarters full. There are two train lines beyond left field and they went by all night.

The game itself had only occasional excitement. Both teams had 10 hits, but neither scored more than one run in an inning. We might have gotten more into the game but after the sun went down, the wind picked up off of the river and the warm afternoon turned into a chilly evening. Melvin and I once endured a 19-inning, must win game over Labor Day weekend in Portland, Maine, on the Sea Dogs’ way to an Eastern League championship. We didn't want to repeat that ordeal and by the seventh inning on Thursday, we were rooting for whoever was at bat and in a position to let us go some place warm. The Bay Bears obliged in the tenth, winning the inaugural contest 3-2.

MiLB Reports: Recap Box Score

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two Dabs, If You Dare

Just a few days into the season and already things are not going to plan. Circumstances prevented me from getting to the Nationals/Phillies game on April 7, but apparently the game was about par for the course for the home squad. One of the circumstances was a friend's reluctance to pay MLB prices to see the Nationals--fifty bucks for any sort of decent seat, he said, just wasn't reasonable. Given where the Nationals have been spending their money in recent years (hello, Cristian Guzman! Are you really only 32 still?), it's certainly an act of faith to subsidize them with one's hard-earned shekels.

So, no Nationals this time, but for better or worse there will probably be another opportunity.

On the up side, we're adding a date with the Fort Wayne Tincaps in mid-May. I'll be taking my younger nephew to his first real game (if we allow that a Padres affiliate is "real"). I don't expect that he'll get too much from it other than indigestion from a surfeit of cotton candy, but I still carry a vivid memory of the first game my father took me to, at Fenway Park for the last game of the 1974 season, against Greasy Gaylord Perry and the Cleveland Indians. Yes, I know going to Fenway is qualitatively different than going to a minor-league team in Indiana, but we have to work with the available materials—when I was my nephew's age, I lived in southern New Hampshire; he lives in Lima, Ohio. At least we each will have crossed a state line to see our first professional game, which I am fairly certain is not a Mann Act violation. And let's remember, anyway, that 1974 was the year before Fred Lynn and Jim Rice exploded onto the scene—they were each on the verge, and Dwight Evans and Yaz were already in place, but the future wasn't quite now yet, if you follow me. Rice did in fact play in that last game of '74, but third base was manned that day by someone named Terry Hughes, not Rico Petrocelli. The Sox finished seven games out, behind the late Mike Cuellar's Orioles and the Yankees.

I can't recall how he did it, but somehow my father arranged to have me taken out of second grade that Wednesday morning so we could drive down to Boston. I was fascinated by the highway signs and probably read the majority of them aloud, which I'm sure helps explain why these outings didn't happen more often. Unsurprisingly, I don't recall much of the game, except for the final score and the confusion I experienced when at the end people kept saying "See you next year"—I hadn't realized in was the last game of the season. Worse, the final score (11-0, with Perry pitching a complete game) that I recall so clearly is not in fact delineated in the historical record: apparently it was really 8-6, though Perry did pitch wire to wire. (Thanks, Retrosheet, for wiping out an imprecise piece of my childhood.)

Does it matter that I don't really remember the game the way it happened? I mean, for all I know, Bernie Carbo could have been rolling spliffs in left field. I don't think it does matter. If all my nephew recalls of the Tincaps is that they have an angry tomato-like thing (or is it an apple?) for a mascot and that he felt sort of seasick in the car on the way home, well, that's OK with me. With any luck it will be a memory of the time his cool uncle actually was cool and not a broken-down bore who won't shut up about that big cheater-faker Gaylord Perry and the joys and perils of Brylcreem.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Opening day for the Mets is Monday, the day after Easter. Season of rebirth and renewal? It is not looking that way. The 2009 season was plagued by injuries and this year has started the same way, with Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and Daniel Murphy on the disabled list. I went to the first game of the season in the new stadium, Citi Field, and the last. Some fans were happy to see the season end.

When a lot of players are injured and the season is in the toilet, the second string takes the field. Nelson Figueroa, who for me epitomizes the quadruple-A player who can't stick in the majors, pitched a complete game shut-out on the final day--the first at Citi Field and so it goes in the record books.

Figueroa holds a special place in my heart. He grew up in Coney Island and started for the Binghamton Mets in the very first minor league game I saw. He pitched a scoreless eighth inning in last year's Triple-A all-star game, which I attended with my father. I also saw him on the sidelines at a Tucson Sidewinders game when he was in the Diamondbacks organization. Figueroa spent time with the Phillies, Brewers and Pirates before finding his way back to the club that signed him. He pitched 13.2 innings this spring, with a 4.61 ERA, very close to his major league career stat. Looks like he'll be shufflin' off to Buffalo.

One of the reasons I root for the Mets and not that team in the Bronx is the announcers are consistently better. And they're not "homers;" I detest that. Former player turned announcer Ron Darling predicts the Mets will win 85 games this year. I figure that has us finishing third. I'm skipping opening day but have tickets to see the Cubs, Dodgers and Phillies. You know you're pessimistic when you pick games based on who the visiting team is. Still, a bad day at the ball park is better than a good day fishing--I think that's how the bumper sticker reads. Citi Field is an enjoyable place to see a game. It's quite similar to Citizens Bank Ballpark, with marquee food behind the outfield for example, but frankly not quite as nice. It's the little things in Philadelphia, like the stainless steel counters behind the seats in case you want to finish your food before sitting back down.

Go even further beyond the outfield and you find yourself in the "Iron Triangle," which yet another New York City mayor is struggling to eradicate in favor of some master-planned community.

I only bought Mets tickets through May, waiting to see when Mel and I were going to hit the road. The first trip is next week and includes two opening day games. Then it's Ohio and points in-between in July. As Major League Baseball sloganeered in the early part of the decade, "I live for this."