Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The LL Chronicles #6: Red Sox Highlights, Lowlights and Coaching the Kids

My son Jalen has been playing organized baseball or T-ball since he was four-years-old. Mrs. Bootleg and I took him to his first Major League Baseball game when he was about four-months-old. As I started typing this post, Jalen was watching a DVD on the history of the World Series. I went halfway downstairs and called out, "What year is the video on?" Jalen -- wearing his A's hat backwards and a weathered ball glove on his left hand -- responded, "1948. See? It's Bob Feller."

Believe it or not, Jalen isn't all that different from any other seven-year-old. He'd eat pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookies at every meal, if he could. At any given moment, approximately 50% of our DVR space is filled with saved cartoons or live-action children's programming.* And, Jalen reacts to his own bodily functions with a suffocating cascade of laughter. He's also WAY into baseball.

* -- Jalen recently discovered Tom & Jerry cartoons. Mrs. Bootleg is apparently seeing them for the first time, too. She was absolutely aghast to witness one of the characters pull out a cartoonish six-shooter in a western-themed bit. In another short; hammers, anvils and frying pans are used to...well, they're used in a manner that MIGHT void their respective warranties. In still another episode, Tom is taking long drags from a cigarette. Mrs. Bootleg was raised as an old black woman BY old black women. She didn't watch cartoons. When my wife was Jalen's age, she was primarily into Motown on wax and no-lye relaxers. Clearly, her immature virtues are all screwed up.

Some of you might not know this, but I'm kinda-sorta into baseball, myself. Since we're a little more than halfway through the 2011 Little League "Rookies" Division season, it seemed like a good time to give you the view from the Red Sox's dugout to my spot in the first base coach's box all the way down to the ground floor -- where the occasional child's shoe might need to be tied.

March 30 -- It was an Opening Day rematch between our Red Sox and the Rangers - unquestionably the best team in the league. It was also my birthday and, admittedly,
this mischievous thought crossed my mind. Karma was not kind. Jalen went 0 for 4 -- still his only hitless game of the season -- and the Red Sox lost big. Though, as birthday gifts go, this game kept on giving.

There was my completely unintentional, albeit
borderline blasphemous pose. Jalen -- whose defense often evokes the classic "Catch 22" nickname of former MLB journeyman Luis Polonia -- flashed some solid leather, including an unassisted double play. And, the parents in charge of postgame "snacks" brought McDonald's for everyone. (I'm almost certain the whole "kids get clobbered before their spirits are lifted by fast food" script was a legitimate McDonald's commercial in the 1980s.)

Jalen was awarded a game ball by the Red Sox's manager in recognition of his glovework. On my birthday.

April 14 -- Our Little League district took two weeks off for Spring Break. While Jalen was out of school; we enrolled him in another round of baseball camp at the
Frozen Ropes facility and hoped that his skill set wouldn't totally erode. He hadn't played a real game in 15 days when, during breakfast, he excitedly told me, "I'm feeling REALLY confident about the game today!" I was instantly tickled by my son using such an empty, oft-uttered sports cliché so emphatically. But, as his father, it's my job to reflexively obliterate his high expectations. Over bowls of cereal, I taught Jalen words like "rusty" and explained phrases such as "...getting your timing back...". When I warned him of baseball's ability to humble even the best players, Jalen's blank-faced response spoke volumes. He went 4 for 4.

April 16 -- It turns out my "humbling" speech came 48 hours too early. On a 90-degree Saturday afternoon, the League dispatched us to a dusty auxiliary field for our 3:00 PM game against the Orioles. We were only a few hundred yards from where we usually play, but our kids never seemed comfortable in their relatively unfamiliar surroundings. Here's a quick sketch that better expresses
their collective anxiety. Jalen was 0 for 3 -- sulking after each out, ignoring supportive high-fives from teammates and turning his back to the encouragement and advice of the other coaches. If there weren't dozens of credible witnesses around, I'd have gone "black parent in public" on my son. Instead, I silently seethed while my bloodstream combusted. In his last at-bat -- with our team trailing by five runs -- Jalen reached on an infield single and... celebrated like this. I wanted to boo him SO BAD.

April 20 -- Five days after "Jackie Robinson Day"** was celebrated throughout Major League Baseball, the Red Sox returned to our usual field to face the Cardinals. This was a special day for me as every black player in the eight-team "Rookies" division was on the field at the same time. All three of them! Seriously. The Red Sox -- IRONY! -- have two and the Cardinals have one (coincidentally, he lives four doors down from Stately Bootleg Manor). I literally had to slink out of the office to coach this game as a high-pressure, competitive proposal effort was really heating up. I returned to work after the game and didn't get home until almost 10:00 PM. I regret nothing.

** -- Major League Baseball has created a website to honor the legacy of Jackie Robinson. I covered this on Twitter, but if you missed it, the site includes tributes from those he inspired...like three-fifth funny, former ballplayer Kevin Millar and, of course, Diddy. The Diddy video clip is GOLD, y'all. He awkwardly references the Black Panthers and casually rattles off his definitive list of important African-Americans ("Obama...Oprah...me.")

April 22 -- All season long, whenever one of our players has reached first base with less than two outs, I say the same thing: "If it's on the ground, you run. If it's in the air, you freeze." Now, a few kids parrot it back to me before I can finish the sentence. Jalen probably learned it a year or two before his teammates. But, there's one little boy on the Red Sox who's good for a few baserunning gaffes per game. On this Friday afternoon, he elevated his effort as he was doubled off first base twice AND the final out in an unassisted triple play. My exasperated pleas ("Stephen, get back! Get back! Stephen! GET BACK!") surely ruined some parent's well-intended videotaping of the game.

April 23 -- Early season rainouts resulted in some midseason rescheduling. So, following our 5:00 PM Friday night game was this 9:00 AM Saturday morning game. Most of our kids were cranky and barely half-awake. One of our outfielders played the entire game with a nosebleed that would NOT stop. Our third baseman sat out an inning after taking a line drive off his stomach. And, the manager's daughter burst into hysterical tears when she was forced out while running the bases.

I don't want this season to end.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TBG Eats: The NEW Pacific Shrimp Burrito AND Cheesy Double Decker Taco from Taco Bell

Current Weight: 162.0 lbs.

Girl: "They changed 'Malibu Stacy'!"

Other Girl: "She is better than ever!"

Lisa Simpson: "Wait! Don't be fooled! She's just a regular 'Malibu Stacy' with a stupid cheap hat! She still embodies ALL the awful stereotypes she did before!"

Smithers: "But, she's got a new hat!"

Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy (The Simpsons, Originally aired February 17, 1994).

As I've mentioned more than once in this space; I have a degree in marketing from San Diego State University. My career in marketing, however, was the rough equivalent of just one calendar year. Ironically, most of that work came while I was still an undergraduate.

January 1997 – May 1997 -- For a marketing research class, my five-person group was tasked with preparing a critical analysis on a new phenomenon called "online banking". We worked with a local Wells Fargo bank, interviewed a few corporate suits and prepared/administered customer surveys that measured awareness, acceptance and/or resistance throughout a representative public cross-sample.

In hindsight, the one-hour oral presentation of our findings inadvertently served as the perfect time capsule. We included quotes from a San Diego bank executive who called the internet -- not just online banking, but the ENTIRE internet -- a "fad" that would pass before anyone in our group graduated. Also cited were several independent surveys that showed a 90% favorability rating from customers towards the banking industry. It's possible only Puff Daddy was more inexplicably beloved in 1997.

June 1997 – August 1997 -- During the summer, I took another single project-based class. This time, my group was paired with a small local business and tasked with creating its marketing plan. At the end of the 10-week session, our group made a formal pitch to the owner of
Fleur De Tea (nope, not another Simpsons reference...that was the actual name of the loose-leaf tea shoppe we were assigned). Our presentation was flawless. As a group, we were committed to providing our client with a quality, credible product. We met daily -- including weekends -- and pulled several all-nighters. The only person on earth more dedicated than us that summer? It's a tie for first.

August 1997 – December 1997 -- My last semester in college included an advanced advertising course in which I directed the entire class in a series of marketing and ad promotions. We conceived ad copy for a local car dealership and wrote two commercials that aired on a San Diego radio station. We promoted a men's and women's college basketball doubleheader -- the first official sporting events at the newly-opened on-campus Cox Arena. And, we put together almost all of the local promotion for a
late October taping of WCW Monday Nitro at SDSU. And, yes, I do still include this work on my resume -- which I'm occasionally required to submit as part of defense contract proposal packages at my current job. I'll put my 1997 up against Sean Combs' 1997 anytime.

14(!) years later, Taco Bell has introduced a pair of "new" menu items that remind me of the "Malibu Stacy" approach to marketing.

The first is the Pacific Shrimp Burrito. TB describes it as "a warm, soft flour tortilla filled with six succulent shrimp, marinated in spices, crisp shredded lettuce, creamy avocado ranch, fiesta salsa, a three-cheese blend and crispy red tortilla strips." Last year, TB debuted the
Pacific Shrimp Taco. The description on their website read:

"A warm, soft flour tortilla filled with six succulent shrimp marinated in a mix of spices, then topped with crisp shredded lettuce, fiesta salsa, and avocado ranch sauce."

For those of you who've ever wondered, the difference between burritos and tacos is apparently a three-cheese blend and crispy red tortilla strips. And, all kidding aside, why is Taco Bell playing up the number of shrimp in the Pacific Shrimp Burrito? By the Americanized Mexican food standards that the chain has solidly established over the decades, shouldn't burritos be bigger than tacos? Six shrimp in a taco seems about right. Six shrimp in a burrito seems a little short.

I actually ordered the Pacific Shrimp Burrito with a Pacific Shrimp Taco and, honestly, couldn't tell the difference. The cheese in the burrito was sparse and overwhelmed by a river of avocado ranch sauce. The tortilla strips provided some nice texture, but not enough to differentiate from the taco -- which scored a 3 out of 5 on my "TBG Eats" scale last year. The shrimp is still nicely seasoned and all the flavors still don't quite come together.

Taco Bell has also (temporarily) added an 89-cent Cheesy Double Decker Taco to their "Why Pay More?" value menu. TB's Double Decker Tacos have been around for more than 15 years. But, now a hearty smear of nacho cheese sauce is added to the refried bean spread on the soft tortilla before it's wrapped around a regular crispy taco. As a longtime fan of the original Double Decker Taco, the nacho cheese sauce probably adds another half-point in scoring on taste. It's ooey. It's gooey. And, if you've had it once... Great value here, though, as two of these are surprisingly filling.

Better than ever? No.

But, they've got a new hat.

Grade (Pacific Shrimp Burrito): 3 (out of 5) Calories: 450 Fat: 22g

Grade (Cheesy Double Decker Taco): 4 (out of 5) Calories: 350 Fat: 15g

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TBG Eats: The NEW Turkey Burgers from Carl's Jr.

Current Weight: 162.2 lbs.

It's fair to say that my family consumes a good amount of ground turkey.

In fact, among African-Americans, I am reasonably certain we eat more of it than anyone else within our ethnicity. (Our household also leads all black people in Major League Baseball interest and craft beer purchases. You cannot be surprised by this.) Ground turkey is simply one of those things that never caught on within the black community.

It's easy to find which goods and services we're generally slow to embrace. Just flip through any black-themed magazine like Essence or Ebony. The ads are almost uniformly written in a way that introduces a product – even those that have been available for decades – as if it were new. Usually with a condescending tagline like "Haven't You Heard…?" (The broadcast equivalent would go a little something like this.) Right next to the Afro-centric ads for Hamburger Helper and Hostess Twinkies; you'll find a few full-color pages for ground turkey.

Thankfully, Mrs. Bootleg knows her way around a mutilated, disemboweled bird.

Her "WWE Triple-Threat-Match Meat Loaf" combines ground turkey with ground sirloin and ground pork. My wife knows how much I enjoy this, so she only makes it two or three times per year and ALWAYS with a side of bribery ("I'll make it, but only if you agree to help hold Jalen down for his flu shot tomorrow.")

For her turkey burgers, my wife blends ground turkey with seasoned bread crumbs, egg and liberal dashes from a spice jar marked "steak seasoning". The finished product has a ground beef texture and holds its smoky flavors after it is lifted from the grill. I've been known to consume two in a single sitting followed by the last two bites that my son left behind. (Also: when he wasn't looking.)

A few weeks back, Carl's Jr. -- along with their sister franchise, Hardee's -- became the first major fast food chain to serve turkey burgers on its menu. According to a company press release, the burgers were conceptualized and created by the editors of Men's Health magazine and the creators of the Eat This, Not That! weight-loss guide.*

* -- I highly recommend the "Eat This, Not That" Twitter feed. Several sanctimonious nutritional tweets per day that warn followers of "EVIL APPETIZERS" (all caps, theirs) "CONDIMENT CRIME" or "SODIUM STACK-UP" accompanied by some (properly capitalized) advice. They also suggest completely reasonable swaps of almost-identical snacks and side items.

Here in Southern California, Carl's Jr. has been in the midst of an ad blitz, exploiting several media/marketing platforms to get the word out on turkey burgers. And, speaking of exploitation.

I swear, I'm going to get to the review really soon. One point, though: why would one of the five largest fast food chains in the country (when combined with Hardee's) offer an ostensibly healthier alternative to the traditional hamburger and then alienate their entire female audience? In the mid-1990s, Carl's Jr. successfully gender-positioned their menu items as unapologetic "guy food". Lower-calorie turkey burgers seemed like an open invitation to temporarily pivot from that position, no?

A-a-a-and, we're back. The Carl's Jr. brand is serving Guacamole Turkey Burgers and Teriyaki Turkey Burgers to go along with the "original" Turkey Burger. The Midwest and Southern-based Hardee's is serving Mushroom Swiss and BBQ Ranch Turkey Burgers. Since I can't yet bring myself to board a plane solely for a "TBG Eats" post, you get the Carl's Jr. review. The good news is that I've tried both non-"original" options.

The Guacamole Turkey Burger features a charbroiled turkey patty, guacamole, pepper jack cheese, tomato and lettuce on a honey wheat Bun. Carl's Jr. ambiguously bills their guacamole as "freshly prepared", but what's not open for interpretation is that this guac is good -- at least by fast food standards. The guacamole on my turkey burger had a terrific spicy kick and a passable avocado note. It was slathered on pretty good which helped mask the inherently arid meat.

Without some effort at the preparation stage, a moist turkey burger is an impossibility. Carl's Jr. loads up on condiments and rides its charbroiled approach to cooking. Even though it's not listed on its website, I'm certain my Guacamole Turkey Burger also had slivered red onions. They really worked well with the cooler vegetables and, of all things, the sweet and chewy bun. The burger itself had a nice lightly-charred taste even if the texture was a bit off. Still, quite a pleasant surprise.

I was less enamored with the Teriyaki Turkey Burger. It's the same charbroiled turkey patty with grilled pineapple, teriyaki glaze, Swiss cheese, red onion, tomato and lettuce on a honey wheat Bun. Unlike Carl's Jr's soo-POIB Six Dollar Teriyaki Burger, the flavors and substance of the ground turkey isn't enough for the other ingredients to build upon. The teriyaki glaze and Swiss cheese just sit there -- segregated within a singular sandwich. Most disappointing, while the pineapple slice works fine with the red onion and glaze, it does nothing with/for the meat.

Carl's Jr. should be credited for thinking outside the box. If they bring on Mrs. Bootleg as a consultant/subject matter expert, they'll knock it out of the park.

Grade (Guacamole Turkey Burger): 4 (out of 5) Calories: 490 Fat: 21g

Grade (Teriyaki Turkey Burger): 2.5 (out of 5) Calories: 470 Fat: 14g

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TBG Eats: Slater's 50/50 - Burgers by Design

Current Weight: 165.0 lbs.

There used to be a sports bar up north in Long Beach called Legends.

Located in my hometown's affluent Belmont Shore community – and just a few blocks from the beach – Legends became the preferred watering hole for my circle of friends. In the mid-1990s, bar standards weren't as lofty as they are today. We didn't need plasma-screen TVs or two dozen craft beers on tap. Instead, Legends offered chicken wings by the bucket, domestic suds and a hazy projection-screen TV with an intermittent picture.

Even as my friends and I moved away from Long Beach, went through college and found wives who'd appropriately lowered their marital expectations, we'd still meet up at Legends once or twice a year. It was our bar. Sadly, as time passes, everyone's shared adventures dissolve into shared anecdotes and Legends was one of the few tangible escapades we could still collectively – if only occasionally – enjoy.

In June 2005, Legends pretty much
burned to the ground. M'man Smitty was first to tell me the bad news and soon after, I was receiving first-person updates from the depressing scene. For several months, there were multiple, sporadic reports that the venerable tavern was on the verge of being rebuilt and reopened. Before long, however, it became a bureaucratic black comedy crudely wrapped in red tape.

And, how's this for irony? Legends actually did reopen in December 2007. Roughly one year later, I met Smitty and our friend Thai for lunch on an autumnal Saturday afternoon. The previously cramped dining area had been expanded and a second level of seating was added upstairs. The faded, weathered memorabilia on the walls had been replaced with mint-condition autographed glossies and hologram-authenticated jerseys, balls and helmets. Plasma-screen TVs! Craft beers on tap!

It wasn't the same. One of the charms of the original Legends is that it was a comfortable little dump that carried a high-end reputation based solely on its zip code. It was where the beautiful people comingled with the hoi polloi – and everyone thought they were in the right place. The new Legends was too…new. We went two or three more times and if our silly, intransigent preference for the old Legends hadn't chased us off, then the increasingly unsatisfying food and service at the new Legends would have.

These days, my old Long Beach crew and I are bar and restaurant itinerants. Whenever we get together, one of us recommends a new location based on anything from
beer selection to barbecue to the possibility of hooliganism.

A few months back, not long after our annual end-of-the-year visit, Smitty forwarded the following
fantastic link. Hamburgers made from 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon?! More than two dozen beers on tap?! 50/50's Famous Bacon Brownie?! We had our new white whale.

This past Saturday, I met Smitty and the Thai in Anaheim Hills -- almost 90 miles north of Stately Bootleg Manor -- for the Slater's 50/50 experience. Slater's is a few miles off the 91 freeway and anchors an otherwise nondescript strip mall. We arrived about 90 minutes after they'd opened and already the dining area was rapidly approaching capacity.

There an enormous, colorful chalkboard right at the entrance that provides an exhaustive listing of on-tap and bottled beers. Another beer board adorns a pillar in the center of the restaurant, but you might have to exercise your eyes a bit to find it. Some of the online reviews for Slater's had been critical of the service, but immediately after we were seated, someone came over to take our drink orders. When I was (predictably) undecided at the outset, our host brought over a pair of samples.

While I was impressed with the selection of porters, I threw my taste buds a change-up and went with a bottle (or three) of
Wells Banana Bread Beer. You heard me. Yes, it's unsophisticated and shameless in its gimmickry. It was also a shockingly awesome pairing with the salty and sweet flavors that appeared throughout the appetizers, entree and dessert. Grade: 4 (out of 5)

We went all-in on the appetizers, ordering a four-way plate comprised of Fried Onion Strings, Fried Dill Pickle Chips, Fried Artichoke Hearts and Fried Macaroni and Cheese. In Slater's defense, the food looked a LOT better than my cell phone camera shows above. Unfortunately, everything is fried in the same heavy beer batter, so there was an uninteresting sameness in the some of the tastes and textures.

The dill pickles pulled off a mild upset here, differentiating themselves with an appropriate tartness and holding a surprising amount of their natural crunch. The macaroni and cheese was simply decent, but probably the best take on this oft-uninspired appetizer that I've ever had. Most disappointing were the artichoke hearts. By themselves, they're one of my favorite ingredients. Here, the searing grease-heat turned them mushy and muddled their familiar flavor notes. Grade (Fried Dill Pickles): 3; (Fried Macaroni and Cheese): 2.5; (Fried Onion Strings): 2.5; (Fried Artichoke Hearts): 1.5

For the main event, I sided with the original 50/50 burger. No one's surprised, right? Do I have to italicize ground bacon for emphasis one more time? The original is topped with an over-medium fried egg, avocado mash, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. Patrons can customize their burgers to the hilt by filling out narrow strips of paper that list all of the available condiments. (Smitty only screwed up his first four attempts before successfully completing his lunchtime Scan-Tron on the fifth try.) My only modifications: white bun and 2/3-pound patty (eschewing the 1/3-pound and one-pounder).

When my 50/50 burger was brought out, the bun was practically glowing with an impressive showroom finish. I cut it in half and noticed the beautiful red tint in the meat just before the ubiquitous bacon aroma hit me flush in the face. In my first few bites, the bacon gloriously overpowers everything else. Eventually, though, the cheese and avocado prove their worth as effective accompaniments with the bacon's saltiness. And, I was stunned by how much I enjoyed the fried egg. I don't ever order/eat soft-yolks, but the yellow ooze and fried flavor brought out every other topping within. I had the other half the next day and damned if it didn't reheat better than any hamburger I'd ever had. 50/50 Burger? More like...Grade: 500

There was no way we were leaving without ordering the bacon brownie. We asked our server how big it was and she responded by shaping her petite fingers into a small square. When our desserts arrived, it was clear that her hands were not drawn to scale. Three BIG brownies sat in front of us, each with crumbled bacon on the top and bottom, chocolate sauce and ice cream (and, as luck would have it, the lightly-read blogger with lactose-digestive issues was the only one with two scoops on his plate).

Make no mistake: this WORKS. But, there are two minor quibbles that keep it from coming together entirely. First, the bacon brownie needs more bacon. I'm sure this was created to entice the quasi-adventurous, but the lack of bacon makes this feel like a potentially daring dessert that decided to play it straight. Second, the brownie needed to be sweeter so that it could play off the bacon. There's a reason that
syrup-soaked bacon pancakes are the greatest breakfast ever invented. The bacon brownie was good, but it could've been great. Grade: 3.5

If I lived closer, Slater's 50/50 would make my regular restaurant rotation. The service was off-the-charts phenomenal, the sports bar ambiance was never overbearing or obnoxious and they've got hamburgers made with ground bacon. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Monday, April 11, 2011

TBG Desert Travel Diary -- Part V: Athletics, Indians and the Chocolate Milk Horror Story

Part I -- Part II -- Part III -- Part IV

Hard as it seems
This ain't no damn dream
Gotta know what I mean
It's team against team

-- "By the Time I Get to Arizona", Public Enemy

Monday, March 14

1:05 PM -- This Athletics/Indians game was being broadcast nationally on the MLB Network. Our seats were behind home plate, roughly 20 rows up. Of course I had the DVR set to record back at Stately Bootleg Manor in San Diego. There was almost NO chance that we'd be seen on TV, but during an Athletics/Angels
game in 1994, m'man Smitty and I made the 11 o'clock news. We could be seen heckling Angels LF Bo Jackson as he hobbled in pursuit of an A's extra-base hit in the corner. Oh, don't look at me like that. They're professional athletes! They're used to this kind of thing! It rolls right off their backs.

1:30 PM -- Erstwhile Oakland OF Travis Buck is starting for the Indians. Buck was never able to build upon his solid rookie campaign with the Athletics in 2007. His body betrayed him during the remainder of his Oakland tenure. When Buck wasn't on the disabled list, he was antagonizing A's manager Bob Geren and our boy-genius GM with his
refusal to play hurt. In the end, Buck deserved better than extended, spiteful Triple-A exiles. Here in Goodyear, he just struck out on a 58-foot breaking ball. Whew. Glad he's not on my team.

2:00 PM -- Attending a ballgame with Mrs. Bootleg and Jalen means that I have to fetch their food and drinks during the first few innings. I'm convinced that my wife thoroughly observes the concourse beforehand and specifically selects the ONE menu item sold at the ONE stand that's invariably the farthest from our seats. We're several innings in before I can finally make my annual amble to Goodyear Ballpark's "Hot Dog Nation" stand. Over the past two years, the Cleveland Dog (chipotle BBQ sauce, bacon, onions and shredded cheddar cheese) earned its coveted 5 out of 5 "TBG Eats" evaluation.
Last year, the Cincinnati Dog (chili, shredded cheddar cheese and onions) couldn't compare. This year, I went with the New York Dog (sauerkraut, spicy mustard). Let me get into character:

Current Weight: 161.2 lbs. I really like good sauerkraut and when it's done right, the cabbage flavor isn't entirely overwhelmed by the more sour components. The cheap sauerkraut here, on the other hand, wasn't as delicious. More salty than sour, if it adorned a lower-quality hot dog, I doubt I could've finished it. Thankfully, the Hot Dog Nation dogs are dense, well-textured and seasoned nicely. Based on the lowered bar at an exhibition baseball game…it was inoffensive eatin'. Grade: 2.5 (out of 5)

2:30 PM -- Me: "Jalen, if you want one more swim in the hotel pool, we'll have to leave no later than 3 o'clock. It closes at five and we've got a long drive ahead of us." Jalen: "I don't wanna leave. I wanna watch the game." Me: "sniff".

2:45 -- During my 30 years as an Oakland Athletics fan, there were only
two A's players who displayed the kind of prodigious power that could make fans collectively stand and gasp based solely on the sound of the bat meeting the ball. This sixth-inning clip DOES NOT do it justice, but the absolute boom off of Chris Carter's bat had everyone in our area on their feet. His home run hit the scoreboard and resulted in several complete strangers -- hands incredulously clasped on top of their heads -- instinctively exchanging stories of the farthest home runs they've ever seen with whoever was sitting in their vicinity. For those who don't know, Carter led the entire organization – big leagues and minor leagues – in home runs last year. As of this writing, he's still in the minor leagues. Just sayin'.

2:55 PM -- Athletics closer Andrew Bailey came on in the bottom of the sixth inning to get some work in. He faced three batters before he was forced to leave with an apparent arm injury. In person, the words "worst case scenario" crossed my mind. This is a sport where emotionless stoicism is the unmarketable norm amongst the game's rank and file. But, Bailey was hopping around the mound, wincing and holding his limp right wing in a demonstrative show of anguish. Years ago, Mrs. Bootleg and I were in the stands at PETCO Park where we witnessed
this gruesome incident. Watching Bailey, I thought we might have a new contender for the silver medal of grisly on-field injuries. (Nothing short of the opening scene of The Last Boy Scout could top two outfielders running face-first into each other.) Fortunately, Bailey's injury was relatively minor and he's expected to be 100% in a few more weeks. Don't EVER scare me like that again!

3:15 PM -- Top of the eighth inning and there might be a few hundred fans remaining. Oakland's Chris Carter steps to the plate and – again, on the first pitch –
hits his second home run of the afternoon. In its own way, this opposite field blast was just as impressive as his scoreboard-denting in the sixth inning. His effortless ferocity here reminded me of two other right-handed hitters with legendary power the other way: Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza. Hold your cards and letters, kids. Carter's obviously not in their stratosphere. But, for ONE at-bat in a meaningless Spring Training game, I could impress my seven-year-old son with the comparison. Know your audience, y'all.

4:00 PM -- The Indians won, 9-8. Carter -- whose "30 A's in 30 Days" player profile was coincidentally pre-posted to run on this day, complete with
Incredible Hulk clip -- actually came up in the ninth inning, but walked. The A's are winless in the three games we've seen them play at Goodyear Ballpark. However, for the first time in three years, the Indians didn't obliterate Oakland. Progress!

4:30 PM -- On our way back to the hotel. From the backseat of our rented SUV, Jalen looked a little lethargic. He had gotten a few extra innings on the Kids' Field before we made our walk to the parking lot. We hadn't been on the freeway for five minutes, when I opted for an off ramp and found a Fresh & Easy supermarket about a mile down the road. "Refreshing beverages for all!", I thought. Bottled water for Mrs. Bootleg. Red-flavored (as most of you know, it's a flavor in the black community) sports drink for me. And, for Jalen, his favorite cocktail:
Nesquik Chocolate Milk.

4:45 PM -- It's seemingly impossible to drive the surface streets anywhere in Arizona without running into road construction at some point. Everything here is being built newer or bigger or wider or better. I applaud your EVENTUAL infrastructure, Arizona. But, this "work in progress" nonsense has proved to be problematic for me in the short-term. We left the supermarket 15 minutes ago and -- with only one lane of traffic open -- we still haven't completed the one mile drive back to the freeway. I'm boxed in nice and tight, inching along towards the on ramp when this happened:

Jalen: "My stomach hurts."

Me: [Instantly panicking.] "What? Jalen. Do NOT throw up in this car!"

Jalen: [Reacting to my panic with some of his own.] "NO! I have to go POOP!"

We've moved half a mile in 15 minutes! I'm idling in a single row of cars with nothing around us but several small mountains of unearthed dirt, traffic cones and the speck of a supermarket in my rear-view mirror. Oh, and a Ruby Tuesday restaurant roughly 150 yards off the street and to our right. There's no vehicular access to the eatery from where we are, so I explain to Mrs. Bootleg that she and Jalen are going to have to make a break for it. The two of them simultaneously exit the car. Without a moment to spare, Mrs. Bootleg gently takes Jalen's hand and...well, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. Here's a
real-time reenactment.

5:00 PM -- Ultimately, I had to drive past the freeway and double-back to Ruby Tuesday's. Mrs. Bootleg and Jalen both climbed back in and both were wearing identical "let's never speak of this embarrassment again" looks on their faces.


Effective tomorrow.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

TBG Desert Travel Diary: The Outtakes!

I'm hoping to have the fifth and final installment of this year's Spring Training travel diary up by the end of the weekend. In the meantime, here are a few vacation pictures that were left on the TBG cutting room floor:

Jalen proudly dragging his own personalized luggage. This is the smile of child who hasn't been through enough airports.

Jalen possibly saving a less experienced swimmer.


Dad shows how it's done.


Breaking out the boomstick.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

TBG Desert Travel Diary -- Part IV: A Good Day in Goodyear

Part I -- Part II -- Part III

The good ol' days
The same ol' ways
That kept us dyin'
Yes...you, me, myself and I (Indeed!)

--Public Enemy, "By The Time I Get to Arizona"

Monday, March 14

9:00 AM -- It's the start of our last full day in the desert and my seven-year-old son Jalen is ending his vacation with a cacao-laced bang. His Monday sustenance began with two of those
single-serving plastic "bowls" of cereal – one was Cocoa Puffs, the other Cocoa Krispies – brought together in one larger bowl. Jalen seemed surprisingly disappointed with his chocolate concoction. Then again, when a child's cereal fancy peaks at age six with the discovery of Cookie Crisp ("Mommy, can we buy this?! It's a cereal…MADE FROM COOKIES!"*) every other cereal can only aspire for second place.**

* -- The actual quote from Jalen when he first noticed Cookie Crisp on a supermarket shelf.

** -- How young is TOO young for Cinnamon Toast Crunch? I was 10-years-old when it first came out and too weak-willed for such an intentionally addictive cereal. I spent my allowance on MY OWN boxes of it. While I never developed a smack habit or crack habit, this came dangerously, deliciously close.

10:30 AM -- For the third straight year, we made the one-hour drive west from Scottsdale to see the A's play the Indians at Cleveland's Spring Training facility in Goodyear. Curiously, while I can justify this in-vacation road trip; I couldn't bring myself to make a similar 60-minute expedition from Scottsdale to…
this place. Mrs. Bootleg graciously puts up with a LOT for the sake of this lightly-read blog. I think she'd draw the line at a family outing built around Quadruple-Bypass Burgers and Flatliner Fries. [Confidential to Mrs. Bootleg: Would it have been OK if just Jalen and I went? An African-American father and son reintroduce themselves to one another during a long drive across post-SB-1070 Arizona. That's not a "family outing", Mrs. Bootleg. That's practically a Spike Lee Joint.]

11:00 AM -- The speed trap cameras
have been removed from Arizona's freeways! Can the locals now direct their cacophony of flawed "Constitutional rights violating" reasoning towards the exorbitant state taxes and fees that accompany in-state lodging and rental cars during the month of March? You'd never see this kind of tourist abuse in California. Here... I'll prove it.

11:25 AM -- We arrive at Goodyear Ballpark five minutes before the gates open. This gives the volunteer seniors who are stationed at each entrance an opportunity to flex their authoritative atrophy. They look down at their watches every 10 seconds and when another minute passes, one of them relays the time into a walkie-talkie. I'd witnessed this scene
somewhere before.

11:30 AM -- The gates are open, so Jalen and I giddily make a beeline for the Kids' Field -- a replica baseball diamond with a red clay infield, bats, balls and bases. I've mentioned this in every other Spring Training travel diary, but I absolutely love Goodyear Ballpark. Great sightlines, pleasant employees, terrific food and close proximity to the players -- even by the relaxed standards of exhibition baseball. Over the last few years, I've enjoyed pitching to dozens of children during the 90 minutes before game time.

11:50 AM -- Wow. There is, like,
NOBODY here. Were there no other irresponsible adults who pulled their kids out of school for Spring Training? It's been 20 minutes and we're the only souls on the Kids' Field. We've already exhausted every possible combination of me pitching to Jalen and Jalen pitching to me. Even Mrs. Bootleg has abandoned us. She's chatting up a lonely ballpark employee stationed in the vacant right field pavilion "party deck". Before I can explain "irony" to Jalen, a few more kids finally trickle in.

12:15 PM -- Despite the cloud cover, it's a deceptively warm afternoon. We're off to pursue autographs, but I'm already exhausted. If a modicum of physical activity has made me tired, you can bet that Jalen is almost comatose. And, whiny. He wants pizza...he wants water...he doesn't want to wait around for the players to start signing. We're standing alongside the visitor's dugout. Mrs. Bootleg is ready to appease him and leave, so I roll the dice and exercise a rare paternal veto. My theory: 15 minutes of hungry/thirsty/cantankerous Jalen trumps three hours of "Nobody signed my ball!"-wailing Jalen.

12:30 PM -- I had almost reached the limit of my patience with Jalen's incessant complaining when the first Oakland Athletic sauntered over and started signing. My son found his second wind.

Kevin Kouzmanoff -- He signed a baseball for Jalen
last year during a game in Anaheim (insisting my son cut in front of the bigger kids in the autograph crowd). This time, Kouz asked my son about Little League Baseball and briefly discussed Jalen's favorite position. The A's third baseman came over two more times before the game began to sign for people who missed out earlier. He's easily the nicest Russian since 1990 Nikolai Volkoff


Michael Choice -- Selected in the first round of last year's amateur draft, Choice seemed surprised that anyone could identify him. But, he walked right over when the elderly lady next to me asked if he'd stop and sign. Up close, he didn't look much older than Jalen. Mrs. Bootleg was asking the players to pose for a picture and I'm reasonably sure Choice heard my wife ask me, "What's his first name, again? I forgot, already." Thanks for not holding that against us, Michael!

Michael Taylor -- Although Taylor's "prospect" status has become increasingly tarnished, he's another super-nice guy. Jalen got his autograph
last Spring and again exchanged some polite banter. Taylor might be on the short list of most attractive Athletics players. Mrs. Bootleg is DEFINITELY on board with this notion, as are most of the women who've seen the above picture. Though, I'd like to point out to these ladies that the 6'6", 255-pound Taylor hit just six more home runs that me last year.

Brad Ziegler -- For those who don't know, Ziegler pitches with an
exaggerated sidearm delivery. Jalen has been endlessly fascinated with his motion since Ziegler debuted in 2008 and my son does a decent (for a seven-year-old) impression of him. When Ziegler signed J's ball, I asked if he wanted to show off his sidearm delivery for his pitching hero. Jalen smiled sheepishly and furiously shook his head. The moral: embarrassing your son is FUN!

Chris Carter -- An absolute behemoth blessed with an eternally pleasant expression on his face, Carter practically had to dig a ditch just to get low enough for this picture. He was also the source of a good-natured debate between me and Mrs. Bootleg. She thought Carter bore a passing resemblance to NFL running back
LaDanian Tomlinson. It's been three weeks and I haven't stopped mocking her. Tomlinson! From a black woman who lives in San Diego. She's seen more of LT than anyone! We don't all look alike, y'know.

Hideki Matsui -- There's simply a different aura around Matsui. He carries himself like a super-duper star and seems detached from everything else – his teammates stretching in the outfield, the awestruck fans who don't dare call out to him. A camera-carrying member of the omnipresent Japanese media that tracks Matsui's every move gestured towards our group of autograph seekers. Matsui picked up on the cue, swiftly signing for Jalen and a few other fans during this contrived – and much appreciated! – photo-op.

Coco Crisp -- This brutha is old-school cool. 35 years ago, Crisp would've had his own Afro-centric sitcom. He signed right up until the start of the National Anthem. After the song ended, Crisp took a few melodramatic moments to re-fit his sunglasses, skullcap and finally his regular cap. Or, as he calmly explained to our section when a few fans openly worried he wouldn't sign anything else, "Don't worry. I got you. Lemme finish getting dressed." Crisp was VERY animated with Jalen and shared this with my son, "Your name's Jalen? I got a cousin named Jalen!" J is still talking about this. When my wife asked Crisp if he could pose for a picture, he suavely responded, "YYYYYes, I can."

Yes, he did.

Next: The fifth and final chapter! Sauerkraut, the Incredible Hulk and the Chocolate Milk Horror Story! I promise!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Son Knows More About Baseball Than You...and Possibly Me

We're less than a week into the 2011 baseball season. These are actual conversations with my seven-year-old son Jalen since Opening Day...

Jalen: [Out of the blue, in the back seat, on the way to school] "Do you think Cincinnati is going to finish in first place?"

Me: [Driving, half-listening] "Uh, maybe. They've got some good young hitters like Joey Votto and...uh, the other guy. Why can't I remember his name? He put up some solid numbers..."

Jalen: "
Jay Bruce."

Me: "Jay Bruce! Yeah. Jay Bruce."


Jalen: [Watching Braves/Nationals highlights] "Daddy, how come Dan Uggla
isn't wearing number six?"

Me: "How on earth do you know what number Dan Uggla is supposed to wear?"

Jalen: "Well, that's the number he wore when he
played with the Marlins."

Me: "I don't know, J. Maybe someone with the Braves is already wearing number six."

Jalen: "Wait. That was [former Atlanta manager]
Bobby Cox's number. They're probably gonna retire it."

Me: [Hauling my jaw off the ground] "How do you know this?"

Jalen: "I just do."


Jalen: [Excitedly racing downstairs this past Saturday] "Daddy, did the A's win?"

Me: "We lost, 6-2. And, we made five errors. It's only the first game of the season, J."

Jalen: "Did Texas win?"

Me: "I think so."

Jalen: "And, the Angels won already, right?"

Me: "I think they did."

Jalen: "Awww...that means we're in LAST place!"

Me: [Head explodes.]

Monday, April 4, 2011

TBG Desert Travel Diary -- Part III: Swimming, Supper & Slight Spousal Conflict

Part I -- Part II

Why I want a holiday?
Dammit, cuz I wanna
So what if I celebrate it
Standin' on a corner...

-- Public Enemy, "By The Time I Get to Arizona"

9:00 AM -- After vetoing Jalen's repeated pleas for a Saturday morning swim, we hit the pool and water slide bright and early on Sunday. However, my right shoulder had grown increasingly sore since my Spring Training pitching debut 48 hours earlier. Combine that with Mrs. Bootleg's poolside
breakfast order and Jalen was essentially parenting himself for the next six hours.

11:00 AM -- I sometimes forget how difficult it can be for Jalen as an only child. He's forced to seek out other groups of kids and hope they'll shoehorn him in. Difficult? After two hours, Jalen had schmoozed with everyone in the pool while laughing and playing as if these complete strangers were lifelong friends. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but here was a young idealistic African-American winning over a red state. Jalen even made inroads with the senior vote, as he was invited to join a quartet of septuagenarians who were playing volleyball in the water. Throw in his
established speech making ability and Jalen could be a viable political candidate by 2040. You've still got time to tear him down, FOX News, but you'd better hurry.

1:00 PM -- Her eyelids weighted down from rum, Mrs. Bootleg still managed to flag down a poolside server to place our lunch order. When Jalen came out of the water, he looked down at the grotesquely overpriced, but delicious-looking thin crust pizza that sat on the small table in front of him. Eight slices. By my estimate, this edible rectangle was 8" x 16". Most of my readers will have to humor me here, but it's not unreasonable to assume that two adults could satisfyingly split this pizza. In the blink of an eye, my seven-year-old son channeled the gluttonous spirit of a certain
merciless planet-eater. There were no survivors.

3:00 PM -- Jalen has obliterated the modern day record for the longest time any African-American has spent in the water. He broke the two-way tie held by
this guy and this guy. Jalen could've made it until the pool closed at 5:00 PM, but we were meeting friends for dinner AND the NCAA college basketball tournament selection show was about to begin on CBS. Kudos to Jalen for the adamantium-clawed indentations he left around the edge of the pool when I forcibly hauled him from the water. Thankfully, we got back to our room to see the assignment of San Diego State University – my alma mater! – to the West region as the #2 seed. "Couldn't you have followed along on your web-enabled phone?", you ask. "Hey, I don't tell YOU how to disappoint YOUR kids", I retort.

4:45 PM -- True to form, Mrs. Bootleg keeps her "meeting friends for dinner" double-standard streak alive. If we're meeting her friends (by definition, someone she works with or otherwise knows independent of me) I'm expected to adhere to Mrs. Bootleg's inelastic schedule. We MUST leave the house on time and not ONE minute later. (Several years ago, she laid on the car's horn from our garage as I was 60 seconds behind her itinerary for a Christmas party – which, as everyone knows, are famous for their set-in-stone start and stop times. If we're meeting my friends, she unfailingly reads from this predictable script:

Mrs. Bootleg: "What time should we leave?"

Me: "Let's get on the road no later than 4:15 PM."

Mrs. Bootleg: [At 4:15 PM, not dressed, curling iron in hand] "Wait, what time did you want to leave?"

Me: "Four. Fifteen."

Mrs. Bootleg "What's YOUR problem? If you're going to be like that, you can go by yourself."

The above conversation may or may not have occurred.

It did.

5:00 PM -- I'll never get used to driving in Arizona. Sure, all the open and unincorporated land is in stark contrast to what I see every day in Southern California, but for the uninitiated, it's like you're perpetually lost as everything seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Nothing, nothing, nothing…hey, an enormous strip mall! Turn left at the light…nothing, nothing, nothing…hey, where'd this sprawling residential development come from?

5:10 PM -- We arrived at Stately JP Manor. It doesn't take much to sway my son, but m'man JP had the end of the Oakland A's game on his flat screen and his two adorable young daughters weren't far away. (A week later, JP and his family purchased a trampoline. If it had been set up during our visit, Jalen might've been angling for an interracial adoption.)

5:15 PM -- JP is one of the original beer snobs and he'd meticulously selected an evening's worth of drinkin' for us. Before long, a glass of his homebrew was gently cooling the palm of my hand. This entire scene should've happened 45 minutes earlier, Mrs. Bootleg!

5:45 PM -- The evening's dinner menu was highlighted by racks of ribs straight from JP's smoker. Ribs – pork, not beef, for the love of God – are Mrs. Bootleg's favorite entrée and JP had me hooked at the smoky aroma that scented all the air within a five-mile radius (+/- five miles). Jalen, however, would be a tougher sell. The pickiest eater on earth was politely exiled to the kids' table in the backyard. From the dining room, I could see my son entertaining his feminine audience; but was unsure if he'd eat his meal since it wasn't on a crust, on a bun, in nugget form, loaded with chocolate chips or ending with "…and cheese". I'm ashamed to admit Jalen did eat some of his ribs…after drowning them in ranch dressing. We can all agree that's a spank-able offense, yes?

6:00 PM -- I like to think I redeemed my family's gastronomic honor.

7:00 PM -- Our respective wives have caucused around a laptop and appear to be planning a future cruise for our families. Due to the lack of ballpark proximity in the middle of the ocean -- unless the Tampa Bay Rays get really inventive -- Mrs. Bootleg will almost certainly be sailing solo. In all honesty, my grade school psyche never recovered
from this.

8:00 PM -- After my fifth high-quality craft beer (the evening's winner was the Founders Breakfast Stout), I'm in no condition to drive. Mrs. Bootleg gets behind the wheel...but, not before her standard "I can't BELIEVE you drank that much" silent snit. Tonight, it manifests via an extra, unnecessary 10 minutes of adjusting the mirrors, seat height, seat incline and thorough familiarization with the headlights and turn signals. That's right, Mrs. Bootleg. Teach me a lesson!

8:30 PM (approx.) -- I've passed out in bed next to Jalen. Honestly, I'm not sure if I was reading him a story or vice versa. Mrs. Bootleg abandoned us both for the sofa bed in the living room. I've spent time with everyone except my wife all weekend long. Maybe on Monday...

...at the Athletics v. Indians Spring Training game over in Goodyear.

Next: Autographs! Sauerkraut! The Incredible Hulk! And, a chocolate milk horror story!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

TBG Sees: Source Code

A puzzling little action film from director Duncan Jones, Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens. His character is that rare military-trained cinematic protagonist who's not written as some sort of G.I. Joe caricature. Rather, Capt. Stevens awakens within the body of another man and -- not surprisingly -- freaks the f*** out.

He soon learns that a bomb has been detonated on a Chicago commuter train and he's been sent back in time to the exact same train -- eight minutes before it inevitably explodes -- to identify the bomber and stop him from unleashing further terrorist attacks on the city. Each time Capt. Stevens fails in his mission, he's sent right back to the train by a technologically-advanced, morally ambiguous Government agency with the same "eight-minutes-to-save-the-world" window.

Gyllenhaal is surprisingly believable as Capt. Stevens, who is kept in the dark -- figuratively and literally -- with regards to the handlers of his puppet strings. Early on, the battle-tested soldier is sloppy and paranoid as he chases red herrings, assaults anyone who looks at him sideways and struggles with the notion of saving hundreds of passengers who are, presumably, already dead.

Michelle Monaghan plays Christina Warren -- the would-be love interest of the man Capt. Stevens is trapped inside. (I know, I know...but, it works.) Appropriately, she's more confused than suspicious when her good friend -- a mild-mannered teacher, as far as she knows -- races back and forth and occasionally off the train in his pursuit of the bomber. The supporting cast is rounded out by Jeffrey Wright -- his Dr. Rutledge created the classified "Source Code" mission -- and Vera Farmiga, who does what she can with her role as Lt. Goodwin, the mission liaison between Dr. Rutledge and Capt. Stevens.

Source Code checks in at just over 90 minutes and moves along briskly enough. Yes, there's the obligatory plot twist, some shocking revelations about the shadowy agency Capt. Stevens works for and an oddly-timed exposition that arrives after 45 minutes of consistent stonewalling. The film's premise drains some of the tension out of the climactic sequence, but that point is recognized and turned into a satisfying conclusion.

I can understand the criticism that the film's final few scenes felt like they were tacked on after the initial test screenings, but the finish line actually enhanced the investment into the characters, plot and endearingly creaky dialogue ("One soldier to another...am I dead?")

Obviously imperfect, but undeniably fun.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mad Hops, Son...

There were two -- and only two -- highlights from last Wednesday's Little League game between our Red Sox and the Rangers (the best team in our division by a wide, wide margin).

My seven-year-old son Jalen was awarded a "game ball" for his defensive work, including an unassisted double play at first base. Jalen usually plays defense like a career-long designated hitter, so ANY recognition for his glove is a surprisingly positive accomplishment.

But, the MOST surprising accomplishment last Wednesday? Check out the Red Sox's third base coach (ME!) deftly avoiding a line drive foul ball off a child's bat.

This picture somehow walks the line between "embarrassing" and "inspiring".