Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Favorite Cities (Version 2.0)

"So, is [New York City] your NEW favorite city?"

The above inquisitive text came from Mrs. Bootleg at 10:30 AM this past Saturday morning. When I received it, I was sitting on a bench near the corner of 30th and 3rd, sipping a large black coffee from Dunkin' Donuts and taking in the relatively serene surroundings. It was my last day in New York City. For the first time in four days, I could see the sun. The humidity had eased up. And, the city's relentlessly frenetic energy was temporarily replaced with a smattering of dogs being walked and delightfully disoriented tourists.

My NEW favorite city? Well, I did have a great time. I caught ballgames at both the Mets' Citi Field and new Yankee Stadium. I discovered a chain cheeseburger that beats In-N-Out and Five Guys. I established a new personal record for highest per-beer bar tab in a single evening. I ate an enormous cheesesteak with extra Whiz and grilled onions at 3:30 AM. I was on the streets during the awesome aftermath of
this awesome moment. And, for the first time, I met four of my favorite readers/former colleagues/Twitterers/New Yorkers.

I've sketched an outline for my travel diary and as soon as I've collected enough crossover New York-centric rap songs* for my
opening lyric gimmick, I'll start working on it. First installment next week. Cool? Cool.

* -- It's 11:00 PM as I type this, but off the top of my head there's "N.Y. State of Mind" by Nas, "New York, New York" by Tha Dogg Pound, "Welcome to New York City" by Cam'ron, Diddy's verse on the "Welcome to Atlanta" coast-to-coast remix and "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. A weak and predictable list, you say? IT'S 11:00 PM!, I retort. Jerks.

I am, however, ready to place New York City within my list of top 10 cities I've visited. Several years ago, I wrote a similar piece, but (1) it was terribly written and (2) I wrote it just before my first trip to New York in June 2007. Since
ret-cons and reboots are all the rage these days, let's just pretend that first post never happened.

(10) Boston, Massachusetts -- In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I only spent one night here back in November 2005. It was an unseasonably balmy 60-degree evening and the memorable bar scene led to years of attempts to manipulate another business trip to the Hub.

(9) St. Louis, Missouri -- In May 2007, I agreed to a business trip at a customer's site in St. Louis based on the fact that my Athletics were playing three hours west in Kansas City. Naturally, I caught games in both of the state's MLB ballparks, but during my stay I was surprised by how friendly everyone is in St. Louis.

(8) Albany, New York -- I spent three nights here in July 2009 -- flying out for Rickey Henderson's induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. It featured the best elements of Boston's bars and St. Louis' hospitality. Locals offered me free drinks all weekend for reasons ranging from "You're from California?" to "You're going to see Rickey?" to "Thanks for not hitting on me." Yeah, it's
all in here.

(7) Austin, Texas -- I visited for work in February 2002. Coincidentally, during their celebration of Mardi Gras. After I returned, my boss called me into his office, closed the door and said, "I heard some things about your trip to Austin...". After 15 minutes of half-hearted denials, I convinced him that I only enjoyed the jazz bars on Sixth Street and assorted barbecue restaurants. And, nothing else.

(6) Scottsdale, Arizona -- There aren't too many places that feature such stark demarcation lines between the approachably pretentious populace in North Scottsdale and the strip-malls and bars spirit of old Scottsdale. I'm fond of both scenes. Besides, if I'm in town, it must mean
Spring Training is, too.

(5) Washington DC -- The assortment of famous landmarks and monuments are positively awe-inspiring, but I've been back there at least a half-dozen times over the past ten years. I've seen all of the touristy spots. Now, I'm hoping for a return trip to Nationals Park where I can enjoy another
Chili Half-Smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl while watching pitchers hit and hitters bunt. Washington DC: Big government, small offense. Am I right?! Feel free to use that, Fox News.

(4) Seattle, Washington -- I've told this story before, but Seattle was the destination for my first business trip. The richly diverse population, cool weather and extensive microbrew community made for love at first sight. It was also the place where my co-workers and I discovered a small "oysters and cigars" bar on our first night in town. Later that evening, I discovered that two dozen raw oysters, two cigars and two glasses of scotch can turn a black man's stomach inside out. In 2006, two-year-old Jalen threw up on me as we stood atop the famous Space Needle. Such an implausible father/son accomplishment had only been seen
once before in Seattle.**

** -- I know it was on the road, but I assume the game was televised back home to all of King County.

(3) Vancouver, British Columbia -- Easily the most beautiful city I've ever visited; it combines the man-made enormity of the big city while maintaining its natural and cultural identities. Although, admittedly, the highlights from my September 2006 vacation were my first taste of ketchup-flavored Lays Potato Chips and meeting rapper/actor Ice Cube in a small market while buying a birthday cake for Mrs. Bootleg. He was pushing his own shopping cart.
This guy!

(2) New York, New York -- Second place!

(1) San Francisco, California -- I've championed their eclectic population, offbeat watering holes and TBG-appealing climate since my first visit in 1996. Before my son was born, I'd make two or three trips into The City every year. These days, I don't get up there as often. But, when we do, Jalen knows that an Oakland A's game is probably on the itinerary, along with an order of chocolate chip Mickey Mouse pancakes at the diner by our usual hotel. He loves it, too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The LL Chronicles #10: All Star Jalen (It's Just an Exhibition)

My son was selected for All Stars in his Little League division! This justifies all the weekends I neglected you for baseball, Aaron's wife.

-- June 7, from
my Twitter feed

It had been an emotional morning for my seven-year-old son Jalen. With two weeks to go until my trip to New York City, I finally had to come clean. I told Jalen over breakfast that I'd be out of town for a few days -- from June 22 through June 25. "You're going to New York?", he responded. With the wheels turning right behind the surprised expression on his face, Jalen sprinted from the dining room and into the kitchen.

He briefly examined the 2011 Oakland Athletics magnetic schedule that's affixed to our refrigerator and exclaimed, "The A's are playing the Mets when you're there! Are you going to the Mets stadium without me?" Jalen's tone struck a delicate balance between incredulous, betrayed and bat-sh*t insane. His wild-eyed reaction reminded me
of this. My post-disclosure tweet didn't do it justice.

That evening, as we were sitting down to dinner, I shared the news regarding his All Star selection. "I made the All Star team?", he asked in disbelief. He then stretched his little arms towards the heavens and jumped up and down with unrestrained elation -- sticking the landing when he asked, "Are you going to tell everyone on your blog?"

That is what I do, son.

My Enemy, J's Manager -- The All Star team managers were the two men who led their respective regular season squads to the championship game. The "West" team was helmed by the playoffs-winning Rangers manager. Jalen and his "East" teammates were guided by the Phillies manager whose team lost to the Rangers in the postseason finale. Coincidentally, our Red Sox lost to the Phillies in the first round of the playoffs. In my
recap of that annihilation, I described the Phillies manager as " of those dads who condescendingly shouts unsolicited advice throughout the game to everyone from his own players to the opposing players to the opposing coaches and even the umpires."

J's Manager, My Man! -- Two days later, the East manager asked me to be on his coaching staff. "You were great with the kids on your team [during the regular season]", he wrote in an e-mail. "And it will be a joy to manage Jalen." What a nice man!

Corruption! Politics! Kids! -- From our league's district guidelines: "The Rookies managers will hold a meeting to select players for the Rookies Classic All Star Game. Managers will select at least two but not more than four players from each team." After finding out about Jalen, I texted another coach whose son was easily one of the best three players in our entire division. I was stunned to find out he didn't make the team. It's clear that Little League Baseball could give the
corrupt country music industry a run for its money.

"We Talkin' About Practice! (Not a Game. Not a Game. Not a Game.)" -- During a pair of team practices in the days leading up to the game, Jalen's swing was clearly out of sync. Calling it "rusty" would be kind. In one at-bat, he
looked like this as he chased a ball in the dirt -- with his bat hitting the ground -- and took off for first base before realizing he swung and missed. Two hours before the game, I offered to throw batting practice to Jalen. "I don't need it", he replied. "It's just an exhibition." Obviously, my son understands the rich tradition of insufferable, overconfident African-American athletes. I didn't push the issue. Instead, I made a mental outline of my sympathy-free "I told you so" postgame speech.

Form-Fitting Orange -- We unintentionally completed Jalen's prima donna motif by arriving 15 minutes late for practice. Most of the team's All Star jerseys had already been handed out – and all of the medium-sized shirts were gone – so, Jalen wore #4 in a small. My son stands a tick over four feet tall and weighs around 60 pounds. His miniature pot belly comprises 45 of those pounds. As Jalen s-l-o-w-l-y pulled the bright orange "East" jersey over his head, the threading appeared to be fighting for its life while simultaneously asphyxiating Jalen's torso. Here is a surprisingly accurate artist's rendering of
my son's fully-uniformed upper body.

Star Treatment -- Ours was the second of three All-Star games on the day and the district pulled out all the stops for the kids. We were on the "Majors" field with a grass infield and working electronic scoreboard. All of the players' names were affixed to their individual spots on the bat and helmet rack. There was a public address announcer who called out the names of the players before their at-bats and – as game time neared – it was clear that this would be the largest crowd most of these kids had ever played in front of. I turned towards Jalen and gently asked if he was nervous. "I hope they announce my name every time I bat!", he replied. A-a-a-and, we're good.

Syxx Pac! -- After two and a half innings, the East All Stars led 6-0. Jalen knocked in two runs with a single in the first and a groundout in the third. I'd never before coached a team that was so talented – top to bottom – with a collectively enviable baseball IQ to boot. In the bottom of the first, we turned an unassisted double play. In the bottom of the second, our right fielder threw out a runner at first base on what looked to be a sure single. In the top of the third, I was coaching first base and sent a runner to second on what I thought would be an easy double. The centerfielder closed on the ball quickly and fired it back to infield in the blink of an eye. Our baserunner would've been out easily, but he hit the brakes, turned around towards first and dove back to the bag just under the tag. I envy that kid's baseball IQ. (See?)

Time-Released Beatdown -- The West All Stars roster was better than ours on paper and they lived up to their billing by scoring eight runs over the next two innings, taking an 8-6 lead into the fifth. Jalen's earlier "It's just an exhibition" admonition rang hollow in my ears.

Kill the Ump! -- For reasons I'll never know, our district assigned a pre-teen as lead umpire for our game. Up to this point, all of our other umpires had been adults – usually managers from teams in older divisions. This young man had a fairly uneventful afternoon until the fifth inning. We scored four runs – taking a brief 10-8 lead – highlighted by Jalen's two-run single. Earlier in the inning, there was a dispute over a bad throw and whether our runner could take an extra base.
(Ultimately, the call went against us, but after the inning, I was the only adult to shake the umpire's hand, apologize for the scene and thank him for his effort. This may or may not have come into play later in the game.)

"If I Gots to Choose a Coast, I Gots to Choose the East…" -- The West All Stars scored three times in the bottom of the fifth inning to take an 11-10 lead. We were down to our last three outs to start the top of the sixth. With one out, the terrified umpire had to make the call on a potential force out at second base. After our runner slid into the bag, the young ump stood petrified for several seconds. I am not exaggerating when I suggest it was similar to the
first 30 seconds of this scene. After an eternity, he called our runner safe which elicited peals of disbelief from the West dugout. From the first base coaches' box (right in front of the opposing dugout) I shouted to the umpire, "Good call, Blue! You're tough, but fair!"

We pushed across the tying run. With two outs and the bases loaded, Jalen came to the plate. The crowd noise – for a Little League game – was incredible. Several parents and players from the 3:00 PM game began arriving, took one look at the scoreboard and apparently embraced us as the underdog. I could read Jalen's lips as he turned towards the catcher and said, "It's loud." Jalen swung and missed twice, awkwardly chopping down on the ball both times. On the next pitch, he poked one through the infield to bring home the go-ahead run.

BUT, WAIT! It was ruled "no pitch" – therefore the hit doesn't count, the runners return to their last base and Jalen comes back to home plate to finish his at-bat. Jalen was absolutely deflated. I took him by the arm and unleashed a torrent of ridiculous sports motivation techniques ("You did it once. Now, do it AGAIN!" and "They're afraid of you! They took your hit away because they're AFRAID of you! Now…make them pay.")*

* -- It's two days later and I'm still amazed that I fixed my mouth to spout such nonsense. I'm hoping it didn't stick with Jalen or else I'll have to use it all the time. "You ate your vegetables once. Now, do it AGAIN!" and "Your mom took the video game away because she's AFRAID of you! Now…make her pay." I really hope it didn't stick with him.

On the next pitch, Jalen beat out an infield single by a step – 12-11, East! It was J's fifth run batted in on the afternoon. We tacked on two more runs and took a 14-11 lead into the bottom of the sixth.

The West All Stars quickly put their first hitter on base with a single. Our second baseman – and one of my Red Sox players from the regular season – then recorded two consecutive force outs at second base. With two outs, the final West batter grounded out to first. Our kids deliriously celebrated, with Jalen – decked out in catcher's gear – doing his best impression of Robby Hammock,
the catcher in this video.

As Jalen explained earlier…it's just an exhibition.

Monday, June 13, 2011

TBG (Quickly) Eats: Honey BBQ Cheetos Puffs

I've had the same barber for 15 years and I get my hair cut every Saturday morning. I bring my seven-year-old son Jalen with me for his haircut every second or third Saturday. Jalen, however, often wants to come with me even when he's not getting a haircut. There are two reasons for this.

First, Jalen knows the barbershop means he'll get to play with my
PSP handheld gaming system. It started out when he was younger, as a reward for good behavior in the barber's chair. Now that Jalen is older, the PSP serves as a distraction from some of the more unsavory characteristics of today's black barbershops – such as religious intolerance (NSFW), vandalism and everything about Barbershop 2.

Second, since my barbershop is a 40-minute drive from Stately Bootleg Manor, I almost always have to fill up my gas tank at the
Circle K after our haircuts are completed. When Jalen is with me, we'll treat ourselves to a classy convenience store mid-morning meal -- usually two 99-cent "Big Grab" bags of salty snacks and two bottles of freshly-squeezed fruit juice to wash it down.

Jalen never deviates from Doritos, while I'm a bit more of a Frito-Lay elitist. Munchos have been a mainstay in my "commuter's brunch" for the past few months. Texturally, theirs is an elegance that richly deserves the "potato crisp" appellation. But, this past Saturday, my eyes wandered towards the whimsical artwork on the bags of Honey BBQ Cheetos.

Oddly enough, barbecue-flavored chips are probably my least favorite. Even during my morbidly obese adolescence, I considered them overly sweet and artificial. But, I was intrigued by the concept of this taste on Cheetos -- especially since these were the lighter, crispier "puffs" variety.

Unlike traditional Cheetos that are smothered in cheese dust, the use of honey-barbecue powder here is much more restrained. There's both a mild sweetness and a wee bit of a kick on the back end of each bite. Meanwhile, the airiness from the puffs prevents that annoying cornmeal coating that smothers the inside of your mouth after eating a bag of Cheetos traditional "crunchy" variety.

Even, Jalen couldn't resist. He's normally hesitant to try any new foods -- with or without nutritional value -- but, he crammed his little hand in the bag, took a tentative bite and proclaimed his admiration ("Daddy, can I have the rest of yours?")

His sad little "Awwww...!" when I told him "no" is better than any endorsement I could give.

Grade: 4 (out of 5)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

AiAA: Oscar Mayer Selects -- "Game Changer"

The below advertisement for Oscar Mayer Selects Angus Beef Franks contains TEN unanswerable questions that should've been addressed by someone within the marketing department.

How many can you find?

"What's wrong with the black guy's face?" -- The upper three-quarters of this ad are clean and uncluttered, yet entirely dominated by one man's wince. It appears to be the sexual vowel-evolution of "
the 'O' face" -- call it "the 'E' face". There is not a single climactic moment in any major American sport that could cause someone to make this face. It is commonly seen in foreign sports, though.

"What IS the black guy wearing?" -- Cargo shorts that ride up mid-thigh? Form-fitting polo shirt? This was unoriginal, African-American comic fodder
twenty years ago.

"What kind of hot dog buns are those?" -- And, why do they look like they cost more than the hot dogs?

"Why are the one guy's feet on the couch?" -- One of the first social rules taught to African-Americans at an early age is to not put your feet (shoes) on the couch. This is so embedded within our collective psyches -- usually through our collective backsides -- that we notice when someone else does it. Even if it is his house and his couch, I'd reprimand him, reflexively. My seven-year-old son is still recovering from the simultaneous scolding my wife and I unleashed when he propped up his baseball cleats on our love seat.

"Where are the coasters?" -- I get the point of the ad's scenery. Maybe it's a man cave-basement thing or intentionally done up to raise awareness for
big, bad wolf-proofing one's walls. I get it. But, if my wife walked into this scene, her head would explode. I never owned or used coasters in my home...before I met Mrs. Bootleg. And, her little black woman's wrath. To alleviate any absentmindedness on my part, I make sure my post-work bottle of beer never leaves my side -- living room, dining room, kitchen, garage or front porch. A flawless plan.*

* -- This past Friday, my son Jalen knocked over my beer. I was sitting in the living room and it spilled all over the carpet. Even though it was CLEARLY Jalen's fault -- indoors, he stumbles around with a cinematic inelegance -- Mrs. Bootleg blamed me! Betrayal! Comparable only to this!

"Where did the guy in the middle get that commemorative, combined 1993 Colorado Rockies/Florida Marlins flannel shirt?" -- He's missing
the matching helmet!

"Who eats in the middle of a big play?" -- The guy on the left is clearly not a sports fan. If he were, he'd be too anxious to eat during what's obviously a Hail Mary pass or a game-saving catch against the outfield fence or a half-court buzzer-beating heave that's airing on the unseen TV. And, his hot dog eating etiquette leaves something to be desired. It's grotesque enough to earn him
an appearance on ESPN.

"Who eats crunchy bagged pretzels as a salty side dish?" -- Potato chips are an acceptable barbecue accompaniment. Pretzels are the uninteresting descendants of saltine crackers. Too many potato chips are bad for you, which -- by definition -- means they're delicious. Most bagged pretzels are fat-free, which -- by definition -- means they're not delicious. The first potato chips were made in Saratoga Springs, New York. The muddled origin of the first pretzel traces back to Italy or Greece or Germany -- two-thirds of the Axis Powers during World War II! Potato chips
are this. Pretzels are that.

"Why is there a pickle on one of the plates when the hot dog on that same plate is already topped with relish?" -- If I've learned nothing else from my NEW
favorite food show, it's that culinary redundancies are a damnable offense. (By the way, how great is Chopped? 20-30 minutes to prepare intricate courses from the ingredients inside eclectic "mystery baskets". Thanks to the time constraints, someone is sure to cut their finger deeply with a cleaver at least once every three episodes. And, I love how the judges have to pretend to enjoy the mishmash meals ("I've prepared an exotic seafood entree with a Fruit Roll-Up reduction!")).

"Where's the beer?" -- On Sunday morning, I took Jalen to the small market down the hill from our house. They've got a great beer selection and as I walked the aisles, Jalen casually remarked, "Daddy, if you don't drink beer for a whole week you'll lose weight and be healthier!" I believe the absence of beer in a magazine advertisement for hot dogs is a problem.
It's too late for me, son.

Friday, June 10, 2011

TBG Eats: The NEW Beefy Melt Burrito from Taco Bell

Current Weight: 164.0 lbs.

Back in college, I ate negligibly worse than I do today. In late August 1995, before my first semester at San Diego State University formally convened, the only food I could afford were 99-cent
Jumbo Jacks. And, for a five-day stretch (before my on-campus meal plan kicked in) they were all I ate -- one Jumbo Jack, once a day for dinner. No breakfast, no lunch.

I'd always heard about the "freshman 15", but everyone I knew from my hometown seemed to LOSE weight after their first few months away at college.* I dropped to around 155 lbs. This was not an attractive look, considering I'm six feet fall. My 36-inch intentionally baggy denim shorts** unintentionally sagged six inches past my backside.

* -- My good friend Vig left Long Beach in 1994 to attend college in Sacramento. When he returned home that Christmas, none of us recognized him. Oh, he was STILL 5'3" and STILL inexplicably tucking his t-shirt into his jeans, but these jeans sure looked like the waistline matched the obvious 24-inch inseam.

** -- Before I moved to San Diego, I was dating a girl who completely overhauled my wardrobe -- including the selection of several pairs of XXL denim shorts. "These are how shorts are SUPPOSED to look!", she proclaimed excitedly. A few months later, I found out from a different girl that the denim shorts fad had passed. "NO ONE wears those anymore!", she snorted.

I've always wished that men could get in on these internal societal memorandums. Or, at the very least, can't men come together to shout down a female fashion trend that needs to end? Are we too late to bash the
ballerina flat fad? We are? Dammit. I did NOT like those shoes.

Once the financial aid checks started arriving, I was able to keep my refrigerator 10-15% filled at all times. I still wasn't eating much, but with my microwave oven, at least they were (unevenly) hot meals. My most frequent eats were "hobo nachos" and "one-minute chili dogs".

The nachos began with one "family size" bag of tortilla chips (or "fiesta size", depending on how ethnically condescending you want your packaging to appear). From there, I'd need a sixteen-slice package of American cheese (and, yes, I still remember the inconspicuous fist pumps I'd make in the dairy aisle when the 24-count cheese was on sale ). jar of
commercialized salsa.

Two handfuls of tortilla chips, two slices of cheese, microwave for half a minute and top with salsa. I could get eight meals for about six dollars total.

My chili dogs were equally pitiable. Microwave two hot dogs for 30 seconds. Put them in buns, top with a few spoonfuls of canned chili and microwave for another 30 seconds. Got some extra cheese slices from the 24-count package that happened to be on sale? Then, take one -- ONE -- slice, tear it in half and place both florescent orange strips atop the two chili dogs. Microwave until melted.



Hey, shut up!

But, it also brings us to the latest menu option from Taco Bell: the Beefy Melt Burrito. From TB's website:

Our classic seasoned beef, seasoned rice, three cheeses & cool reduced-fat sour cream sealed up by a warm flour tortilla & melted to perfection.

The culinary "hook" -- if I'm interpreting the below commercial correctly -- is quickly-melted cheese.

This was pretty much my own dietary criteria for most of the mid-1990s.

The Beefy Melt Burrito is the quintessential Taco Bell food. The ground beef comes right to forefront with its ubiquitous seasonings and slightly mealy texture. Some of the cheese flavor seeps through, but it's muted by both the beef and my local TB's maddening tendency to shovel on the sour cream. Inside the tortilla, it's the rice -- still superfluous, no matter how many value burritos Taco Bell folds it into -- that takes over texturally.

Taco Bell at least landed on the right price. It's only 99 cents and the creativity isn't much more evolved than the thought that went into one of their regular tacos. If TB had doubled the ground beef, eliminated the rice (yes, I've made both suggestions 100 times before) and went with a sprinkling of red tortilla strips inside, they'd have something better than the Beefy Melt Burrito's current end result.



Grade: 1.5 (out of 5) Calories: 470 Fat: 20g

10 Thoughts: Oakland A's -- May 2011 Bob Geren Memorial Edition

April: 13-14
May: 14-15
June: 0-8

Shortly after 10:00 AM on Thursday morning, my Oakland Athletics announced that manager Bob Geren had been relieved of his duties. Geren had spent four-plus seasons at the helm and leaves with a 334-376 record. It would be insensitive to suggest my fellow Athletics fans and I took pleasure in the firing of a 49-year-old baseball lifer, but my friend Smitty sent me an email with the subject "The Lord Be Praised" after the news broke.

I spent the next 12 hours devouring the story and absorbing the reactions -- while establishing new lows in workplace productivity. The Bob Geren era makes for some interesting epitaphs.

(1) Which group did Geren lose first: the clubhouse or the fanbase? Hired after Ken Macha was canned at the end of the 2006 season (after winning an American League West division title and making it to the ALCS), Geren finished his first season 76-86. That 2007 team was crushed by injuries (not to mention a certain
time-released tumor), so Geren was effectively given a pass by the fans. On the players' side -- even if we ignore the Milton Bradley blow-up (which, to be fair, was directed at Oakland's boy-genius General Manager) -- there were an awful lot of guys on that team who'd eventually have public fallings-out with the organization at some point (1B Dan Johnson, SS Bobby Crosby, OF Travis Buck, DH Jack Cust, C Rob Bowen, C Adam Melhuse, SP Chad Gaudin, SP Rich Harden and RP Huston Street). Hmmm...

(2) After a 4-1 loss to the hated Angels on May 23, Oakland interim closer Brian Fuentes
ripped Geren apart to the press. The 35-year-old Fuentes is relatively new to the team -- in the first year of a two-year contract -- but, has built a respectable resume over eight-plus season in the big leagues. And, with the security of a multi-year deal, Fuentes' pointed comments were met with lukewarm retorts from Geren and GM Billy Beane. (Septuagenarian A's owner Lew Wolff graciously provided the comic relief everyone needed with the single most effusively oblivious vote of confidence ever issued.)

(3) Despite claims that the team had put the Fuentes controversy behind them, it's clear that it was the final nail in the coffin for Geren. He was fired a little over two weeks after it went down. It's not unreasonable to think that Beane could reach out to Melvin (who had rejoined the Arizona Diamondbacks last month in an advisory capacity), make him an offer, accept a counter-offer, agree to a deal with obligatory legal review and have a signed contract in that time? Trust me: I'm in my 12th year as a contract negotiator/administrator and it takes me about 17 days to get anything done.

(4) On the same night that Fuentes became famous (for something other than his 1-7 record and 5.06 ERA, at the time) erstwhile A's closer Huston Street
piled on Geren -- via text message to an A's beat writer. Street was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2005 and equally impressive for Oakland in 2006. Injuries and an increasing proclivity for surrendering tape-measure, game-tying home runs in the ninth inning marred his final two seasons (2007-08) with the A's. Street's criticism was undeniably petty and obscured his own ineffectiveness that -- coincidental or not -- overlapped with Geren's first two seasons as manager. (This season, Street's allowed seven home runs in 29 innings (or more than two for every nine innings). But, sure, keep running your mouth.)

(5) The cavalcade of former A's referenced yesterday included 1B/DH Mike Sweeney. He spent a single season (2008) in Oakland -- most of it on the disabled list -- and was released after...well, after something happened. According to San Francisco Chronicle writer
John Shea's sources, Sweeney lit into Geren after the manager wouldn't give him more starts during a late season series in Kansas City (against Sweeney's longtime former team). According to Sweeney, Geren established a "culture of fear" and, more egregiously, he wouldn't let the players ride in the bus by themselves just one time! Ballplayers are far and away my favorite athletes.

(6) Even Rob Bowen got in on the all-day dance atop Geren's grave. Yes, THAT Rob Bowen! He posted a .209/.289/.336 slash line in 1 1/2 seasons with Oakland from 2007-08. After being released during Spring Training 2009, he left the game and now works in law enforcement. He's also on Twitter! Bowen fanned the flames with
this tweet a-a-a-and especially this tweet. Now, let's not start making up sh*t to pin on Geren, Rob. Yes, SP Josh Outman and RP Joey Devine were on your 2008 team and needed Tommy John surgery the following year. And, RP Andrew Brown's shoulder exploded during the same season. Of course, Rich Harden IS made of paper mache. But, Geren didn't ruin any of them. It's common knowledge that the only career he killed off was Michael Wuertz's -- as irrationally outlined here.

(7) During Beane's conference call with the media to explain the firing, he said, "It got to the point where the emphasis was on the status of the manager on a daily basis and no longer on the field." The team had lost NINE games in a row (and, now, ten consecutive losses, after Thursday's game). It was the performance on the field that was putting the "emphasis" on the manager's status. This is the kind of circular reasoning and specious thought that's been lampooned in the business world for decades. Now,
the pointy-haired boss is running my favorite baseball team?!

(8) Your guess is as good as mine as to why Beane isn't held accountable for this mess. His close friendship with Geren (did ya know that Geren was best man at Beane's second wedding?!) screamed "incestuous" and "conflict of interest" on a business level. Furthermore, Beane's first two handpicked managers (Ken Macha in 2003 and Geren) were both fired after irreparable rifts with their players. I know Beane now holds an ownership stake in the A's and isn't going anywhere (against his will, at least). But, it would be nice if one of the A's three beat writers could ask why Beane believes his third hire is a charm.

(9) My take: Geren had to go. You can't blame him for the unprecedented parade of injuries or the inept offense, but let's not rewrite history, either. The oft-opined idea that this 2011 team was the first time Geren ever had expectations of winning hanging over him is patently ridiculous. The 2007 A's lost 16-game winner Barry Zito to free agency and essentially swapped out a monster year from DH Frank Thomas for a thought-to-be still-productive Mike Piazza, but still had most of the pieces that won the division in 2006.

The 2009 A's inexplicably reversed course after a year of rebuilding, trading for OF Matt Moss Holliday and plugging holes with the calcified remains of players who were good ten years earlier in an ill-fated attempt to make a playoff run. In 2011, my A's had become unwatchable. 250-foot fly outs, a steady stream of weak groundballs to second base and a pitching staff that couldn't allow opponents to put a two or three-run lead on the board, since Oakland doesn't score enough to come from behind. I would've already punted on the season if not for my seven-year-old son Jalen. I love watching the games with him as I quietly seethe and simmer, while Jalen boils over. The look on his face when we win is all that keeps me coming back.

(10) Speaking of Jalen, I tweeted this yesterday:

I support the #Athletics managerial change for the sake of my seven-year-old son. He's two or three more losses away from taking up smoking.

After last night's loss with our new manager, I should probably start pricing
kid-friendly Laramies this weekend.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My 2011 San Diego Fair Food Pre-Game Show

Late last month, the San Diego Fair officially released its deep-fried, freak show menu for 2011. Next to any Jalen-related post, my annual Fair food review is my absolute favorite thing to write. This will be my fifth consecutive year of gratuitous intestinal abuse:

2007 -- Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwich, Garlic Fries, Funnel Cake, Foot-long Hot Dog, Fried Twinkie, Fried Rattlesnake.

2008 -- Deep-Fried White Castle Slider, 14-inch Corn Dog, Fried Oreos, Street Tacos, Frog Legs.

2009 -- Oatmeal Cookie Chicken Sandwich, Fried Catfish, Chocolate-Covered Bacon, Fried Macaroni and Cheese, "Zucchini Weeni".

2010 -- Deep-Fried Pop Tart, Hash Brown Fry Dog, Buffalo Chicken Indian Fry Bread, Deep-Fried Klondike Bar, Chocolate-Dipped Pickle, Deep-Fried Butter.

In a few weeks, these will be my options:

Blue Mussels -- I love how this item is included under "healthier fare". Native to the North Atlantic Coast, blue mussels – like all edible mollusks – are extremely sensitive to improper food handling. For me, the end result of their cross-country adventure could be more painful than
THIS cross-country adventure. (As an aside, the orangutan's cameo in Cannonball Run II is widely recognized as the merciful end to modern cinema's "simian era" (1980-1984)).

Oven-Baked Sandwiches -- The Quizno's chain turned me off on toasted sandwiches. Aside from their ruinous effect on the roof of one's mouth; the toasted bread that supports these sandwiches doesn't sop up sloppy sauces as well as softer, untoasted bread. Just to be clear, this position does NOT apply to the timeless grilled cheese sandwich or the short-lived
Panini sandwich fad (1998-1999). "Crispy" sandwiches will always trump oven-toasted "crusty" sandwiches. It's science.

Deep-Fried Beer-Battered Bacon Bliss -- I cannot cosign on the use of "bliss" here. The deep-fried beer-battered bacon is served with ranch and barbecue sauce -- the two most clichéd condiments known to man. With a side of, say, blue cheese dressing or apricot preserves, I'd affix "bliss" to the end of this description. For now, let's call this "Deep-Fried Beer-Battered Bacon Boring. Eh? EH?!

Deep-Fried, Chocolate-Covered Bacon -- I tried the San Diego Fair's heart-healthier, non-deep fried chocolate-covered bacon in 2009. It was an average and unspectacular food novelty. Dipping these candy-coated pig strips into the Fry Daddy will assuredly soften up the chocolate – resolving one of my problems with the original version. However, it will still be dark chocolate (I prefer it closer in color to my own delicate cocoa-butter complexion) and the already-overcooked bacon (so that it can hold the chocolate) will be even further obliterated. Oh, I'm in. But, expectations will be tempered.

Deep-Fried, Pigs in a Blanket -- Let's be clear: the ONLY "pigs in a blanket" worthy of such an adorable appellation are breakfast sausages enveloped within a pancake comforter and served with copious amounts of
ethnocentric maple syrup. The kid-friendly "hot dogs in a crescent roll wrapper" are an acceptably edible finger food, but are NOT "pigs in a blanket". I'm guessing that the Fair is going with deep-fried, breaded or battered hot dog bites. Don't think I won't ask BEFORE ordering, though. And, don't think I WON'T make an embarrassingly demonstrative scene if pancakes and breakfast sausage are not involved. (Consider that your only warning, Mrs. Bootleg.) [UPDATE: The Fair's website has been updated and clarifies that this will be "thick-cut bacon, dipped in pancake batter, then deep fried and served covered in butter and syrup." AIEEEEEE!]

Chocolate-Covered Corn Dog -- This is where I draw the line. Chocolate CAN work with unusual components, if they're salty or sour or especially savory. But, chocolate and cooked corn batter sounds like a culinary car wreck. Keep in mind, as well, that the Fair's hot dog quality – historically – is pretty much the epitome of the longstanding "fillers and mystery meat" stereotype. Chocolate-covered pickle? Yes. Ate one last year. Chocolate-covered corn dog? Nope.

Fry BBQ Ribs -- I'm assuming it's deep-fried barbecued ribs. If so, I'm decidedly on the fence. Barbecued ribs are one of those foods where the quality is as much in the texture and cooking technique as the taste. The high heat of frying grease could be disastrous when paired with meat that benefits from longer cooking times and lower heat. The onus will be on this item to disprove my theory that deep-frying ruins foods that have already been perfected by black people. This is why fried macaroni and cheese NEVER works.

Deep-Fried Kool-Aid -- See above theory.

Deep-Fried Brownie -- I've previously eaten the Fair's deep-fried Twinkie, Oreo cookies and Klondike Bar. Aside from the heavy batter; there was nothing that distinguished the deep-fried varieties from their not-fried convenience store counterparts. On top of that, plain ol' mass-produced and/or box-mix brownies rank way down the list of my preferred desserts. (My top three, for those of you who'd like to test-bake between now and next March 30: oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips and walnuts; key lime pie; anything that begins with "warm apple…").

Deep-Fried Girl Scout Cookies -- So, they're really going with Thin Mints? Maybe – MAYBE – this works with
Samoas and improves upon their negligible ooey-gooey quality. But, Thin Mints? I have my doubts.

Deep-Fried Corn on the Cob -- Mrs. Bootleg used to make a mean fried corn – a deliciously rich dish that simmered in a heavy skillet and made the whole house feel as warm as a big ol'
Southern hug. Deep frying corn on the cob seems more like an abomination than a gastronomic token of affection. I'm a proud purist when it comes to corn on the cob: preferably cooked on a grill and sweet enough to be eaten without butter or salt. What's that, you say? Wrapped in bacon? I'm listening…

Tasty Sweet Potato Corn Dog -- Sweet potatoes are a versatile food, but I don't think they can carry a corn dog. I assume some sort of sweet potato puree will replace the traditional corn batter here. And, while I enjoy sweet potato fries and chips, I find that I can only eat a few at a time before my tongue turns on the taste and texture.*

* -- For me, the best example of this is Red Vines. After two or three ropes, the inside of my mouth is coated with a gummy, chewed residue and lingering aftertaste. I've never finished one of those packs of six in a single sitting.

Deep-Fried Beef Jerky -- Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single food that my wife and I disagree on more vehemently than beef jerky. Mrs. Bootleg LOVES that heavily-peppered, inedible shoe leather. The concept of introducing dehydrated meat into a basket of bubbling grease is, admittedly, intriguing, but this sounds like "exhibit A" in the case against deep frying everything.

Deep-Fried Candy Kabob -- I've already argued against deep-fried desserts, but I'm sure the candy kabob will make for an interesting visual.

Deep-Fried, Baby-Ruth-Filled Jalapeños -- YES! My favorite bite-sized candy bar crammed into my favorite mildly-spicy pepper?! We've officially identified my annual "white whale" of eatin' at the San Diego Fair! If this works, I propose it replace the always-mediocre, cream-cheese-filled jalapeño popper appetizer on every casual dining restaurant menu in America. (If the Baby Ruth jalapeños don't work, I'm willing to settle on switching out the cream cheese in poppers for cubed sharp cheddar. In fact, let's do this anyway, restaurant industry.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

The LL Chronicles #9: An Ignominious End to the Impossible Dream

With a first round loss in our playoff opener, the "Rookies" Division Red Sox stared into the daunting proposition posed by "double elimination": win out or go home. The Red Sox stayed alive by outslugging our next opponent, but still needed three more wins just to play for the championship and FIVE more wins to take home the title. On Wednesday, we faced the A's...

The Umpire Problem -- Nearly ten minutes after the scheduled 5:00 PM start time, the umpire was still in the middle of an extended pre-game discussion with the two managers. I ambled over just in time to hear the end of the ump's improvised rewrite of our field's ground rules. The same field that every team in our division played on all season now had newly-delineated "dead ball" areas where -- in the event of an errant throw -- baserunners would be awarded an extra base.

And, before finding the off ramp on his power trip, the umpire took it upon himself to redefine the strike zone. The strike zone that's clearly defined IN WRITING by Little League Baseball, Incorporated. It's been nearly 15 years since an umpire so blatantly stained the game. (And, nearly 25 years since such an obviously questionable official was involved in a sporting event of this magnitude.)*

* -- To be fair, I should mention that the umpire, ultimately, did not negatively impact the game for either team. Also, in the interest of fairness, I should mention that Danny Davis was JUST as shady as Earl Hebner.

One Jalen, Two Outs -- In the top of the second inning, with one out and a runner on first base, the Red Sox were already down by four runs. My seven-year-old son Jalen stepped to the plate (batting seventh...don't GET me started) and popped out to short right field. All season long, whenever one of our players reached first base, I leaned over and recited the baserunner's mantra (with less than two outs): "If it's in the air, you freeze. If it's on the ground, you go." All. Season. Long.

As Jalen kicked the chalk in disgust and turned in towards the infield grass on his way back to our dugout on the third base side, I noticed another Red Sox player jogging in the vicinity of third base. With my attention focused on my temperamental son, I failed to notice that our runner on first didn't freeze. Not at first base. Not at second base. I've grudgingly agreed to a 95/5 split of the blame between the baserunner and myself. All season long!

Sad Face -- It's the bottom of the second inning and the little boy who made the aforementioned baserunning mistake looks devastated. This is an odd sight because he's unquestionably the most cheerful player on our team and -- to his credit -- never seems to take the game TOO seriously. He appears on the verge of tears as he stands solemnly on the infield dirt. Before the first pitch, I sprint over to him and apologize for not calling him back to the bag. He nods softly and doesn't really respond to my reassurance that there'll be another chance. Was it something I said?

Someone ELSE Said Something -- Just before the top of the third, the Red Sox manager called everyone together for an impromptu in-game meeting. His message -- in so many words -- was "be nice to your teammates". It took me less than two seconds to put two and two together. I motion to my son for our own impromptu in-game meeting:

Me: "Jalen, were you mean to Jack?"

Jalen: "Yes."

Me: "What did you say?"

Jalen: "I told him it was all his fault and 'If it's in the air, you freeze. If it's on the ground, you go.'"

Well, then. At least SOMEONE was listening. In all seriousness, I felt horrible for Jack and embarrassed for Jalen. When I was J's age, I had the same over-the-top attitude towards sports and my teammates until I learned two things: (1) You'll be miserable most of the time and (2) One day you're going to pick the wrong teammate to call out. Trust me (and my face) on that. Thankfully, Jalen apologized.

"My God! That's...that's Kharma's [sic] music!" -- Jalen struck out in his next at bat. As he slowly trudged back to the dugout, dramatically dragging his bat in the dirt, who do you think was the first person to greet him? Jack emphatically threw an arm around Jalen's shoulder and said, "You're TOTALLY going to get a hit next time!" There's more than one way to care about baseball, Jalen.

And, Speaking of "Face"... -- The Athletics had opened up an eight run lead by the bottom of the fifth inning. Team defense had been a problem for the Red Sox all season long -- and we were especially icky in this game -- but, we kept the A's off the board heading into the final inning. Unfortunately, one of our defensive stops was inadvertent as our shortstop took a bad hop off his face. As I escorted him off the field to administer first aid, his left eye began to swell. After a few minutes with an ice pack, however, he got right back to his position. Naturally, the next TWO balls were hit to him and he literally ran away from both of them.

The End -- Trailing 15-7 in the final inning, the Red Sox rallied for four runs and cut the Athletics' lead in half. With one out, Jalen (TOTALLY) got a hit to load the bases. The next batter popped out to short right field for the second out...and Jack was doubled off of second base for the final out. Our third pop-out double play of the game. Red Sox lose, 15-11.


Afterwards, more than one of our players asked me, "When's our next game?" I'll assume those kids didn't hear Jalen's "I can't believe we're eliminated" lament. Before long, the Red Sox turned their attention to the junk food and juice boxes provided by the assigned "snack mom" and were looking forward to the postseason pizza party this weekend. Even Jalen had moved on...with the help of this postgame Rickey Henderson reenactment.

Believe it or not, there was a time when I wanted nothing to do with coaching youth sports. The politics, the parents, the ego and the immaturity. But, after the game, Jack walked right up to me and said, "Thanks for coaching me this year, I had a lot of fun!" I replied, "You're welcome, Jack. I had a lot of fun coaching you." To which, he responded, "Don't tell the other coaches, but you were my favorite!"

For the third time in two hours, Jack nearly brought me to tears.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The LL Chronicles #8: "Playoffs? Don't Talk About…PLAYOFFS?! You Kiddin' Me?!"

The regular season for the "Rookies" Division Red Sox ended earlier this month and the playoffs began ten days ago. With a generous and much appreciated assist from the league's double-elimination format; our team remains alive despite being outscored 41-24 in our first two tournament games.

Morning-ball -- Our first playoff opponents would be the Phillies – a good, but not great team managed by one of those dads who condescendingly shouts unsolicited advice throughout the game to everyone from his own players to the opposing players to the opposing coaches and even the umpires. The 9:00 AM start time only added to our collective annoyance. The Red Sox played some of their most unwatchable ball during the handful of regular season games that began this early. On this day, a dugout full of barely-awake seven and eight-year-olds – plus my son Jalen, who was usually in uniform by 7:00 AM for our Saturday morning match-ups – drifted in and out of sleep, saving their worst performance of the season for the first game of the playoffs.

Yes, One of THOSE Dads -- During the regular season, our team's manager constantly juggled the batting order – ostensibly so every player got a chance to hit in a different spot in the lineup. Towards the end of the season, our manager belatedly embraced a more merit-based batting order. Inexplicably, he reintroduced our children to socialism for the first game of the playoffs. Now, I know that most of the people who throw around accusations of 'socialism' are unhinged, agenda-driven lunatics, but come ON. "I'm batting LAST?!", replied Jalen incredulously after viewing the lineup card (and after hitting third or fourth over the past month). I couldn't possibly recreate my involuntary facial expressions from that moment, but the first few seconds
in this clip are a reasonable approximation.

Mommy Issues -- Trailing by just one run in the bottom of the third inning, our kids began to rally. With the bases loaded, our sixth place hitter was due up. And, from the first base coaches' box, I could see our sixth place hitter sitting at the end of the dugout bench, sobbing into his hat. Despite being the smallest player on the team, he's actually one of our more resilient kids. But, at this moment and without any explanation, he tearfully refused to bat. After the inning, the other coaches -- not me, as Mrs. Bootleg can angrily attest -- coddled and comforted him, but still couldn't get him off the bench. As luck would have it, my mother had made the 100-mile drive down to see her grandson. In the bottom of the next inning -- with me coaching first base and in no position to stop her -- she walked over to the dugout and coaxed a response from Weepy McGee. Turns out he was sad because his mother couldn't make it to the game. Oh, don't you DARE empathize with him!

Bathroom Break -- Jalen was due up fifth in the bottom of the fifth inning and for the first time all season, he had to leave the bench for an in-game bathroom break. Some of our kids make multiple trips per game, so I was only mildly annoyed as I repeated one of the well-worn parental laments ("Didn't I ask if you had to go BEFORE the game started?") Without thinking, I entrusted Mrs. Bootleg with Jalen's restroom accompaniment. I realized my mistake when Jalen's turn to bat came around and he was nowhere to be found. My wife ran track in high school. Her nickname -- and I am NOT making this up -- was "Too Fast".* Today, she moves with the urgency of inertia.

* -- I only learned about "Too Fast" within the last year or so despite knowing Mrs. Bootleg since the mid-1990s. I responded as if she admitted to having an affair ("What OTHER now-ironic nicknames are you keeping from me?") There is no way my wife ever wanted me to know this. I probably shouldn't have shared it with you guys. If she asks, you didn't hear it from me. Cool?

19 -- Remember that old
Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured the famous "Gashouse Gang" conga line around the bases? Well, that's what happened to us in the top of the sixth inning. The Red Sox allowed 19 runs to cross the plate and over the course of the half-inning each and every one of our players physically and mentally checked out of the game. Jalen -- our best defensive player -- fielded his position at a comically cinematic level. Another one of our players was chasing a butterfly around the outfield with his glove. After my 100th reprimand in his general direction, even I stopped giving a damn. My indifference was interrupted when the boy's mother began scolding him. Exasperated, she turned to me and asked, "Aren't you going to do something about this?" Final score, 29-8. Can't do much about that, ma'am.

With the loss, we fell into the inspirationally-titled "losers bracket". Our next opponents would be the Yankees -- a collection of really nice kids whose cumulative baseball ability was inversely proportional to their personalities. Before the game, I told Jalen to focus on having fun -- not wins and losses. Although, to myself, I was thinking: "If we lose to THESE guys..."

Still One of THOSE Dads -- I'm just a coach. I coach first base and primarily oversee our teams' hitting drills.** I'm not the manager. I don't make out the lineups. I do, however, know that batting our team's second-best hitter -- and, arguably, our best all-around player -- eighth in an elimination game is...oh, take it, Jalen. "I'm batting EIGHTH?!" Yeah, that about covers it.

** -- Oh, shut up, all of you guys that have ever seen me bat.

CRASH! -- In the third inning, one of our players reached base. Our team's best hitter -- batting seventh(!) in the order -- was up next. At this level, most of the fielders don't know where to stand and oftentimes inadvertently block the basepaths of potential baserunners. I kneeled down at first base, looked our player right in the eye told her, "When Steven hits it, you need to be ready to run. Be sure not to run into the first baseman." Who knows what happened next?! Thankfully, it looked worse than it really was. On a line drive to the gap, I watched our runner at first base turn her head to follow the ball. When she put her head back down...
ohmygodohmygod. She was inconsolable for several minutes and Jalen practically leapt over her prone body as he volunteered to pinch run.

Did I Say "Best" Hitters? -- In the top of the fifth inning, the Red Sox were leading by a single run. With one out and the bases loaded, our two best hitters were due up in succession. Steven has a nice little swing, but sometimes tries to play a power game that belies his eight-year-old frame. He struck out in short order. Jalen was up next. I can always tell when my son is on the verge of a terrible at bat. Oftentimes, it's when he's imitating something he's seen on TV like Ichiro's
pre-swing ritual or Kevin Youkilis' goofy stance. Sure enough, in the on-deck circle, Jalen is swinging two bats at the same time. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.

Coach's Candor -- At the start of the sixth inning, one of the Yankees coaches approached me and said, "You guys have got this. We've got the bottom of our order due up and the first two kids haven't gotten a hit in three weeks." I found myself giving an awkward pep talk to the opposing coach, before I caught myself and wondered if he was trying to get our team's guard down. These are the thoughts that run through your mind during the Little League playoffs, y'all. And, sure enough, the Yankees first batter that inning got a hit. I knew it! Keep your guard up, Red Sox! Keep your guard up!

Still Alive -- The Yankees scored a run and had two runners on when Jalen fielded a slow roller to the right of the pitcher's mound. He turned and threw out the runner at third base for the final out. 16-12, Red Sox win. Jalen then immediately assumed the role of Tony Phillips, while our third baseman played Dennis Eckersley...
and this happened.

Our odds are longer than long -- we'd have to win FIVE more games (without a loss) to win the championship -- but, for one day, the kids could celebrate.

And, I wouldn't mind celebrating five more times.