Sunday, July 22, 2012

The LL Chronicles #20: Jimmy Dugan was Dead Wrong


11-4 win in our Little League playoff game. I was proud of them until their over-enthusiasm at the postgame pizza from Little Caesar's. -- From my Twitter feed, May 30

In our six-team division, the top two seeds earned first-round byes. This meant that my A's -- the number three seed -- played the sixth-seeded Cardinals in the first round. During the regular season, we went 3-0 against the Cards and outscored them, 48-26. (Oh, don't look at me like that. I didn't keep the stats. I simply lifted them from our league's website. They're the monsters who've distilled the wholesome spirit of Little League baseball into "who won" and "by how much". I'm just sippin' the illicit liquor, I didn't make it.)

My kids were criminally overconfident coming in to this game. There were intermittent chirps of "...the Cardinals are the worst team in the league..." and "...we'll beat them, easy..." throughout our pregame warm-ups. Before my team took the field in the first inning, I gave them the "any team can be beaten" speech with two obvious references that, admittedly, might not have resonated with 11 boys born in 2003-2004. (However, my eight-year-old son Jalen knows who Kirk Gibson and Jose Rijo are and, more importantly, why they're both bad, bad men.)

Our inconsistent offense blew a few scoring opportunities early, but after two innings we'd put five runs on the board. Unfortunately, Garrett -- my best pitcher -- surrendered four runs of his own before pitch count and next-game availability concerns forced me to replace him mid-inning in the second with just one out. We got out of the inning when my next pitcher struck out the next two hitters -- with the bases loaded -- on just seven total pitches.

At the start of the third inning, I brought in Jalen to pitch. Although my previous pitcher, Jeff, was efficient and overpowering, I'd seen enough of him all season to know that riding his arm was a lot like a blackjack table. His hot hand could go cold at a moment's notice. Better to leave the table a few chips up than down. Plus, the ultra-early hook meant he could come back and pitch in our next game just 48 hours later. This strategy made perfect sense to me, but when Jalen took the mound, I could hear some parents behind me offering unsolicited, critical opinions of my move. Even the home plate umpire called over to me, "You know your last kid only threw seven pitches, right?"

Thankfully, Jalen saved my reputation's bacon with his best outing of the season -- two scoreless innings, three strikeouts and one unfortunate hit-by-pitch in the ribs of best friend at school, Joseph. I've previously written about this boy. He's the one who'd wave to Jalen before each of their hitter/pitcher match-ups. Jalen gets a little intense when he's pitching and didn't immediately apologize. I was going to talk to him about it after the inning, but as he toed the rubber to make his next pitch, he stepped off, turned to first base and asked Joseph, "Are we still friends?" Joseph nodded. "Sorry about pitching inside", Jalen said. "I just wanted to back you off the plate."

I suppose if African-Americans are going to take any societal morals from the 1950s and 1960s, it might as well be professional pitching philosophy.

We effectively put the game away in the bottom of the third. With two out and the bases loaded, our last-place hitter stepped to the plate. By my unofficial count, he'd recorded just two or three hits all season. The score was still 5-4 and the potential for a big inning was just three strikes from slipping away. Instead, on the first pitch, he lined one down the left field line for a two-run single. I screamed "TWO! TWO! TWO!" as the ball skipped into the corner. Seemed like a sure double. Instead, I turned to find my batter barely halfway to first base. I put the brakes on his glacial pace, satisfied with a single.

A five-run third inning gave us the cushion we needed and the A's won going away, 11-4. Mediocre, barely-edible pizza for everyone! As I reached for my first and only slice -- the last slice left among the six pies purchased -- my #3 hitter yelled, "I want it!" Sure, I thought. You took two called strike threes tonight. You've earned it!

2nd round Little League playoff game tonight w/o our best hitter. "A family event", I was told. I assume "funeral", but even then... -- From Twitter, June 1

After our first round victory, we were slated to play the Padres -- the two-seed in the tournament, the best offense in the division and the team that hung 20(!) runs on us the last time we met. I didn't learn that we'd be without Jeff, our best hitter, until the morning of our game. I was...disappointed, but opted to take the high road. I've heard directly from other coaches who, when hearing that one of their better players will be unavailable, ask why he can't make it and try to guilt the kid's parents into bringing him to the game anyway. I never want to be THAT guy.

We got off to a phenomenal start. Jalen moved up to the leadoff spot and contributed to a five-run first inning. Garrett, my starting pitcher, held the Padres to only one run in the bottom of the frame. Alas, there were a few more frames to be played. The Padres' pitching held us to just three more runs the rest of the way, while Garrett and Jalen threw 50 pitches each, but couldn't keep the Pads from scoring five in the second inning and four in the third. Trailing 10-8 in the top of the last inning, we sent the tying run to the plate. He also happened to be our...uh, "least productive" hitter of the season. Called strike three. Ball game.

Still, our first playoff loss wasn't without its moments. For the first time all season, Jalen was hit by a pitch. This was unquestionably Jalen's biggest fear involving the jump to live pitching. During the regular season, when a pitch was in the vicinity of "inside", Jalen would drop his bat, flail his arms and melodramatically bail out.

In the second inning, J was at the plate and facing a burly eight-year-old named Daniel. In all seriousness, he's probably the biggest and strongest kid in our division. His first pitch to Jalen sailed inside and caromed loudly off the backstop. Initially, I hadn't realized that Jalen was hit. The umpire immediately signaled for J to take first base, but he was lying face down in the batter's box.

I raced from the first base coaches' box and could hear the speculation from the parents behind the Padres' dugout that J might've been hit in the face. When I turned my son over, some of the dirt from around home plate had completely adhered to his sweaty face. The streaks of tears were the cleanest parts of his visage.

Me: "It's alright, son. Where'd you get hit?"

Jalen: [sobbing] "In the hand."

Me: "J, the ball went straight to the backstop. It would've ricocheted if it hit you square in the hand."

Jalen: [still sobbing] "What's 'ricocheted'?"

Me: "Jalen, if it DID hit you, it just grazed you. Go to first base."

Jalen: "It DID hit me!"

As we walked up the first base line together, my son and I continued our debate. To the Padres' parents on the first base side, the villain in this discussion was clear.

"Aw, give the kid a break, coach!"

"You need to get some ice on his jaw, coach!"

"Why are you keeping him in the game when he was just hit in the face?!"

Thankfully, Jalen broke the ill-informed tension a few moments later, as he looked up at me with infield dirt still caked to his face.

"Dad...I think I swallowed some chalk."

Awesome.

Little League season over after walkoff loss. Team in tears. Walter Matthau sprayed the Bad News Bears w/cheap beer to cheer them up, right? -- From Twitter, June 4

The remainder of our team's tournament games would be played within the boundaries of the bluntly-titled "losers' bracket". The double-elimination set-up meant that our season would end after one more loss. Our path to the championship required my A's to win games on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then defeat the sole survivor from the "winners' bracket" -- twice -- during the following week.

Our opponents on this gloomily overcast Monday afternoon were the Pirates. My hitters struggled early, but we pushed a few runs across in the middle innings. On the mound, Garrett and Jalen were constrained by pitch counts, but collectively kept the Pirates within reach of a rally. Entering the top of the last inning, the score was tied 5-5. We then scored four and took a 9-5 lead ahead of the Pirates' last-ups.

Jeff came on to pitch in the previous inning and snuffed out another bases loaded threat with another strikeout. He was popping the catcher's glove with his fastball and even mixing in a pretty good change-up. One of my coaches remarked, "This is the best he's looked all season."

And, then, it wasn't.

Leading off the inning, he walked the first batter on four pitches. This would start a bizarre chain of events, beginning inside the Pirates' dugout. The opposing kids switched to "rally mode" -- superstitiously flipping their caps backwards and shouting encouragement to the next batter. They were loud. They were more than a little obnoxious. They were kids. But, after Jeff went 2-0 on the next batter, he shot an icy glare into the opposing dugout and held it for two or three beats.

Intentional or not, the kids in the Pirates' dugout soon tweaked the timing of their hooting and hollering. They synced it with Jeff's pitching wind-up and delivery. A few moments later, their vocal support devolved into time-released screeches and shrieks. To be clear, they weren't breaking any rules. But, I think they knew what they were doing...and I know their coach did.

With two runners on, one of the Pirates' better hitters came to the plate. As the cascade of screams increased, Jeff put one square in the batter's back. It was the sickest sound I've ever heard on a ball field, as the batter was down for several minutes before taking first base. Not surprisingly, the hit-by-pitch quieted the Pirates' dugout, somewhat. Jeff even battled back to strikeout the next batter. But, his control never really returned. He eventually walked in the winning run and the A's lost 10-9.

As Jeff left the field, he was understandably inconsolable. I met him at the first base line. I wanted to apologize for leaving him in, explain my reasoning and let him know there wasn't anyone else I would've wanted out there. But, before I could fumble around for the first words, he looked up from the glove that was smothering his face and choked out, "I'm sorry I let the team down." Before I knew it, the whole team was shuffling towards me -- some of them obviously disappointed, the rest openly bawling.

My voice cracked about halfway through my final postgame speech to the team. The kids' chorus of sniffles and sporadic gulps of air reached a crescendo just as I finished up. The final 30 minutes of my 2012 Little League managing career were accurately captured in this artist's rendering. Despite the unbelievably kind and encouraging words I heard from the parents after the game, I know it was me who let the kids down.

As usual, Jalen and I were the last ones to leave the field. All of the equipment was packed snugly in my car's trunk, so we plopped down on the bleachers -- a sad, shared attempt to extend our baseball season for a few more minutes. As the field lights automatically switched off, we made our way home. I could hear Jalen weeping softly from the back seat. I could still see my team's tears as I drove along the pitch-black path from the park to our house. And, then I heard Jalen again.

"Dad, are you crying?"

"..."

"It's OK, dad. I won't tell mom."

==

Jalen was in reasonably better spirits by bedtime. The next morning, I spoke to Jeff's dad and found out that Jeff wore the resiliency of a typical kid. One week after our playoff defeat, the team got together for the traditional end-of-season party. As I entered the playroom at our local Round Table Pizza, I witnessed 11 kids gleefully clinging to one of those mechanical pony rides intended for a single preschooler. I could hear gears grinding as it slowly lurched forward. Unless that painted steel horse was sentient, there would be no tears here.

A few days later, Jalen and Jeff were among the four A's players chosen to play in their division's all-star game. And, whaddaya know? One of the managers even invited me onboard to coach.



I savored every moment of that game and was unapologetically more "parent" than "personnel". Jalen went 1 for 3 at the plate and late in the game he was brought in to pitch to the best two hitters from the team that went on to win our division's championship. He struck out the first hitter and induced a pop-up to short on the second. 

 


Our season officially ended with a 12-12 tie. It's kind of a long story involving clutch hits, shaky defense, a late-inning comeback and a bunch of stuff that happened AFTER Jalen recorded the second out of the inning. It was a good game. It was an ugly game. It was a great way to end the season.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The LL Chronicles #19: Five Games, Ten Days & How to Give Up Twenty Runs


5 Little League games over next 10 days. Must track pitch counts lest I'm forced to keep promise to less talented players & let THEM pitch. -- From Twitter, May 12

Perhaps it wasn't worthy of a spread in Sports Illustrated, but I did have a strategy: use a three-man starting rotation with one of the two non-starters pitching in limited relief for the rest of the season. My son Jalen got the start on the mound and threw 49 pitches in our 16-10 win over the Cardinals. This made him unavailable for our next game just two days later, but it ensured that at least two of my three best pitchers would be available in every game down the stretch.

And, if George Will were indeed worthy of his journalistic accolades, he'd update Men at Work with a chapter about my decision to let our least-experienced, least-skilled player pitch the final inning on this day. To the layperson, it might've looked like I was preserving my superior pitchers. But, surely Will's poetic prose would paint a picture of a little boy -- who begged his manager all season for an appearance on the mound -- and his first opportunity to mop-up pitch at any level. 30 pitches...28 balls...2 strikes. If we hadn't hit the two hour, 30 minute time limit, that kid might still be trying to finish the inning.

"Could you play my son [who never listens, pays attention or catches baseballs] at 1B?" - Father of one of my players. Edited for clarity. -- From Twitter, May 14

Our team ran its undefeated streak to four games with a 7-5 win over the Braves. For me, the drama came before the first pitch. With just a handful of games left in the regular season, I knew which of my kids could handle the skill positions (infield, pitcher, catcher) and which kids couldn't (right field, left field). The child in question had been known to swing an imaginary lightsaber while playing the outfield and occasionally turned his back to the plate as the pitch was delivered. The only people more oblivious on a Little League baseball diamond are these guys.

I consulted m'man Smitty on the matter. He's a former high school football coach who occasionally faced irate parents with unreasonable expectations. When they asked why their kids weren't playing more, Smitty gave them his unvarnished opinion ("Your son is slow, he's weak and, if he plays, someone will get injured.") or invited the parents to come watch film with him to see for themselves. Preferring the passive-aggressive approach, I kept the possibility open by responding, "Well, let's see how he does at first base during pregame warm-ups." He...did not do well. He also screamed over to Jalen at shortstop, "Don't throw it so hard!" Come on, you guys. I was justified in not playing him, right?

RIGHT?!

Another Little League win tonight. Wife not happy. A parent told her, "They're playing better since your husband started yelling at them!" -- From Twitter, May 16

Look...I'm the last person to lazily apply the laws of cause and effect. I'm well aware that the infamous Bear Patrol Tax was NOT necessarily a bear deterrent. But, after my team's 17-11 win against the Pirates, we were 4-0-1 over our last five games -- which coincided with my pitch-perfect postgame promo to the team from five games ago. Before this game, some of the kids were half-assing it during infield practice. I threatened to make the entire team run laps -- for the first time all season -- if the kids didn't tighten it up with their gloves. As I returned from the dugout with another bucket of balls, I could see some of my players encouraging their two or three disinterested teammates. Or, maybe I caught the tail end of a kiddie code red. Either way, the rest of practice went off without a hitch...and my hands were clean, Lieutenant Kaffee.

5-game undefeated Little League streak ends. 20(!) runs allowed. Son (1+ IP, 6 R) helpfully pointed out everything everyone else did wrong. -- From Twitter, May 19




This season was my son's first experience pitching off the mound. His first few games went surprisingly well, as he showed good control and an ability to miss bats. As the hitters became acclimated to live pitching, they caught up to Jalen and he struggled for a stretch towards the end of the season. J did eventually pull it together for the playoffs, but he was occasionally obliterated along the way. The Padres' lineup included several buffalo-sized batters who salivated at the prospect of pitches that were anywhere around the plate. And, ironically, J's greatest pitching strength (consistently hitting the strike zone) is his biggest weakness.

In the second inning, Jalen faced the biggest and strongest kid in the division. He doubled to deep left field. The sound of the ball off his bat -- and the reaction of those who heard it -- was recently recreated at the command of Mother Nature. Ask Mrs. Bootleg, you guys. I'm not exaggerating. J's usually emotional when I relieve him after a bad performance. On this day, J was emotionless when I took the ball. His facial expression -- and probably his thoughts -- captured perfectly here.




Ugly Little League loss tonight. Highlights were my son's second home run of the season and his teammate who showed up without his uniform. -- From Twitter, May 21

There wasn't much to love about our regular season-ending 17-8 loss to the best team in our division. 45 minutes before game time, one of my players showed up in jeans, sneakers and a polo shirt. His mother insisted he "didn't have time" to change clothes and she asked if he could play without his uniform. I had to think fast. "Unless he's wearing a cup inside those jeans, he can't play", I responded. The quizzical look on her face foreshadowed her next question. "A cup?"

Hoo boy. "Never mind", I conceded. "But, he's going to need to be in uniform to play."

Jalen, meanwhile, had a slightly more eventful evening. Late in our game, he lined a hit over the first base bag and down the line for a double. I was coaching first base at the time. I watched the ball. I watched the bag. Fair. Yet, the umpire called it foul. One of my coaches later compared my reaction to the scene in Happy Gilmore in which Happy first shows self-restraint. My son's reaction? Much more like a Major Leaguer.

Oh, I'm exaggerating. When Jalen was called back, his squeaky "WHAT?!" elicited appreciative applause from the A's families who've eaten up my son's made-for-TV act all season. He then melodramatically stomped back to home plate as if he were being sent to his room without dessert. On the very next pitch, he smacked one into the left-centerfield gap. It was an easy double, but J made the turn for third. And, when the left fielder made a slow lollipop throw back to the infield, Jalen turned at third and came all the way home.

The A's finished the regular season with a record of 6-8-1. Believe it or not, this was good enough to secure the third seed in our division's postseason tournament. But, if we're cataloging improbable accomplishments, J has to come before A's. As he excitedly exclaimed after the final regular season standings and statistics were posted to our league's website, "I tied for most home runs in the division!"

Hard to believe I had to be talked into managing him.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The LL Chronicles #18: Assaulting Adolescent Umpires, Managerial Meltdowns & Jalen's First Home Run


Son struck out looking w/bases loaded to end today's game. Now, I know 2006 NLCS pain of ‪#Mets‬ fans. How long does it last? Couple of hours? -- From my Twitter feed, April 21



Hard to believe this was one of my most memorable moments of the season. It was nearly 90 degrees at game time and my Little League A's team didn't exactly come prepared to play. The kids were sloppy in the field and uninspired at the plate, but they'd trimmed the deficit to three runs entering the final inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, my son Jalen stepped to the plate. He'd previously relieved our starting pitcher and kept the club in the game, so the conclusion of this climactic sequence seemed preordained. Alas, Jalen went down on three pitches. Each one inside and off the plate. Each one looking. So, what made it memorable? Well, this montage of African-American entertainers who were actually relevant during the 1990s represents the expressions on my son's face when the umpire called strike one, strike two and... strike three.



You'd think I'd be ashamed of getting in face of 13-year-old umpire at Little League game, but you'd be wrong. Just like he was ALL NIGHT. -- From Twitter, April 26

Midway through our game against the Padres -- the best hitting team in the division -- my A's trailed, 6-4. And, with the game half over, the two adolescent umpires working the game decided to switch assignments. In the bottom of the 3rd inning, the home plate umpire began working the bases and the base umpire set up behind home plate. Initially, I hadn't picked up on the chicanery. But, after my first batter struck out looking at a forehead-high fastball, I realized what had happened. My kids spent the previous innings adjusting to one terrible strike zone and now had to recalibrate their bats for an even terrible-er one. It was the most egregious act of incompetent -- possibly corrupt -- sports officiating in at least 25 years.

After the Padres' pitcher struck out the side -- while throwing maybe two legitimate strikes the entire inning -- I (might've) stormed from the home dugout, (possibly) got in his face and (kinda-sorta) unloaded. In the interest of full disclosure, the following diatribe has NOT been corroborated by anyone except my two coaches and the opposing manager, so take it with a grain of salt:

"Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me with this strike zone?! The face is a strike now? Is that new? Because, if the face is a strike, I'll tell my kids to swing. WHERE is your strike zone?!"

I dialed it back a bit when I realized the poor kid appeared to have peed his pants at my "angry n' black" act. After all, the umpires are doing the best they can and -- even at this level -- the game moves a lot faster than you might think. I needed a more mature way to express my displeasure. After we lost, the umpires walked towards me without a word. They're paid $16 apiece per game and the home manager is responsible for handing out league-issued checks. I spent the next 20 minutes taking equipment from the field to my car...one piece at a time. "Coach?", one of the umpires eventually uttered, "My mom's waiting for me. Can I have my check, please?"

"When I'm finished.", I (perhaps) hissed. And, true to my word, I paid them when I finished. See? Mature.

Little League game today vs. undefeated, undisputed best team in division. Rehearsing my "let's just focus on having FUN!" pregame speech. -- From Twitter, April 28

During our first two games against the Rangers, we needed a pair of late-inning rallies -- in garbage time, against their 9th/10th best pitchers -- just to keep from losing by double-digits. On this day, we jumped on the Rangers for five runs in the first inning. Collectively, it was the best game of the season for our offense and by the end of the second inning, everyone was swinging the same bat. Our leadoff hitter borrowed Jalen's 28-inch, 15-ounce aluminum toothpick and after stroking a double, he excitedly christened it "rally bat" while standing on second base. Although, truth be told, it was only the second best "birth of a bat" fable from the past 20 years. We scored 13 runs while wielding "rally bat". The Rangers, however, scored 16 after [ironic pause] rallying for five runs in the top of the final inning. It was still FUN! Mostly.

After our best game of the season last Saturday, my Little League team played their worst game of the season tonight. SO hoarse from booing. -- From Twitter, May 3

A few days after our previous game, I treated the entire team to an hour at the batting cages. This was not an inexpensive excursion, but the kids had fun and it appeared we'd turned a significant corner in creating team camaraderie. Our chemistry experiment promptly exploded in a 17-5 loss to the Braves. After the game, several of the same kids who checked out around the second inning suddenly found their hustle as they raced over for postgame cupcakes. Coach Aaron had seen enough. I took the entire team out to right field... and this happened. Minus the profanity, obviously, but I did repeat several of Jim Leyland's talking points, including: "...if you don't want to be here..."; "...I don't wanna see it no more..." and "...I've had enough of this f****** s***..." Minus the profanity! MINUS!

Attention gamblers! My son's Little League team has lost four in a row & our two best pitchers are ineligible for today's game! -- From Twitter, May 5

And, somehow, we won 17-7. My starting pitcher hadn't pitched all year, but never surrendered the early lead provided by our offense. The kids had regained their immediate cupcake gratification privileges.

My son hit his first Little League home run tonight. In related news: if anyone wants to take an insufferable 8-year-old off my hands...

In other related news: "AIEEEEEE!" -- From Twitter, May 8

As luck would have it, after spending the season either in the dugout or coaching first base, I stationed myself in the third base coaches' box for our game against the Pirates. Jalen came to the plate with two runs in and two runners on in the bottom of the third inning. On the first pitch, he hit a line drive into left-centerfield that skidded across the patchy grass and took a knuckleball bounce away from the two outfielders chasing it. There were a few moments of miscommunication amongst the fielders as the ball rolled parallel to the outfield wall and it still hadn't been picked up as Jalen hit the bag at second and turned towards third. 

By now, the ball had rolled far enough for the rightfielder to make the play as I windmilled my left arm out of its socket and screamed "HOME! HOME! HOME!" As Jalen rounded third base, the look on his face shifted from his usual intense grimace to unbridled elation. He slid into home feet-first kicking up a hazy fog of dirt and chalk. Jalen popped up from the dust, turned back towards third base and asked, "Dad, did you see that?!" He didn't even give me a chance to answer, before he sprinted towards the dugout -- index fingers extended -- and performed an over-the-top monosyllabic celebration that I'm sure I've seen somewhere before.

Yes, Jalen. I saw it.

But, I think you already knew that.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

TBG Eats: The 2012 San Diego Fair

I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing VI

Current Weight: 169.8 lbs.

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. 

2011 -- Deep-Fried Pigs in a Blanket, Deep-Fried Kool-Aid, Pink's "Rosie O'Donnell" Hot Dog, Baby Ruth-filled Jalapeños, Maple Bacon Donut, Meatball Sliders. 

This year's San Diego Fair food report almost went unfinished. 

For the sixth straight year, my wife, our eight-year-old son and I made the trek from Stately Bootleg Manor to the coastal town of Del Mar.  As usual, I got down to gluttony as soon as the gates opened.  Mrs. Bootleg and Jalen joined me for my first meal.  She ordered what appeared to be a wholly mediocre Philly cheesesteak (...and you can be judgmental when you've been to the mountaintop) while Jalen predictably went with pizza.   

Before long, Jalen was off attempting to ride...every...ride.  Twice.  And, sometimes thrice.  During the week, the crowds don't appear until late afternoon, so my son had the run of the park.  Until he tripped. 

After yet another spin on one of the fair's spinniest spinning rides, J was looking a little green.  This was an unhealthy, unflattering green that heretofore had only been seen here.  I was just two meals into my fried food festivus and nearly undone by someone else's stomach issues. 

Thankfully, J felt better after two bottles of water and an extended break from self-inflicted dizziness.  Later, I bought him a brownie ice cream sundae in a bowl and -- hands be damned -- he proceeded to eat it using only his mouth.  Here's a reasonable facsimile of the instant replay for those of you who might've missed it. 

Now, step aside, son.  Let dad show you how it's done. 

Deep-Fried Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich -- A few years back, in response to posts like the one you're currently reading, I wrote about the handful of foods that even I wouldn't eat.  Now, I'm not saying I should've found a place on the list for peanut butter, but it's one of those foods that I'm nitpickingly particular about. First, it must be "creamy" not "crunchy".  Are you familiar with that chalky-textured, obscenely sweet stuff crammed inside a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup?  That ain't peanut butter.  And, most importantly, there IS a proper peanut butter-to-jelly ratio inside of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 




In what's become an annual tradition within this annual tradition, the Chicken Charlie's stand was once again the spot for my first meal of the morning.  Breakfast would be a battered up and deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich that's then finished with an additional drizzle of jelly and a pinch of powdered sugar. 

Unfortunately, the first bite didn't floor me.  The ubiquitous fair batter that enveloped the P, the B and the J was, as always, deliciously dense and decadent.  But, simply put, there was too much peanut butter.  I admit to being in the minority on this matter, but the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich is made with one part peanut butter and [pause for melodramatic effect] one-and-a-half to two parts jelly.  [Pause for boos.]  Wait, let me finish.  Without the added gelatinous sweetness, the flavor profile is just a salt sammich with subtle sugar notes. 

Here, the peanut butter overwhelmed the jelly and -- when dropped into the deep fryer -- the PB became caramel-like in its consistency, oozing all over the place.  By the end of this mess, all I could taste was hot, runny peanut butter -- not unlike those abominable "natural" peanut butters that require stirring before spreading.  (And, if you peanut butter believers are going to boo anything, it should be that.)  Grade 1.5 (out of 5) 

Meat Lover's Hot Dog on a Stick -- With no end in sight to America's hyperbolic bacon fad, it's high time we collectively decided on which group is more annoying: the over-the-top pro-bacon crowd who show their support with the 'caps lock' key on and an extra helping of exclamation points or the hilariously haughty bacon traditionalists who recoil with horror at the sight of bacon anywhere beyond a mediocre chain-restaurant cheeseburger or the breakfast table.  Let's call it a "push" and cut to the chase -- a bacon-wrapped hot dog should work...but, here, it doesn't. 




"Salty" is not a strong enough adjective for this.  I'd say it's appropriate to use salty's full name.  Hell, my first bite felt like a foreign object had been flung at my face.  The flavors seemed to even out by the end -- either that or my palate had tapped out -- but, curiously, the hot dog might've been more than just bacon's unwilling sodium accomplice as it was ridiculously salty on its own.  Still, this was a MUCH higher quality hot dog than the fair usually produces with a nice snap and better-than-acceptable texture.  The beer-battered bacon was fine -- crunchy on the outside, somewhat soggy on the inside with none of the fat trimmed away.  Better bacon/hot dog taste delineation would've saved this from a subpar rating. And, it was screaming for something sweet (a squeeze of maple syrup?) to cut the saltiness. Next year, I'll bring my own Mrs. Buttersworth, yo. Grade: 2 

Deep-Fried Chili Asteroids -- For those of you who don't know, the theme of this year's San Diego Fair is/was outer space.  That doesn't excuse this unfortunately-named appetizer/punch line, even if the description sounded absolutely divine: 

Award-winning homemade chili and cheese, deep-fried in a hushpuppy batter. 

Admittedly, my standards are high.  Mrs. Bootleg makes an amazing chili that's the perfect autumnal accompaniment when the November thermostat sinks to 66 degrees and we briefly consider closing the living room window.  My hushpuppy expectations are equally lofty as I once knew a guy who worked at Long John Silver's. 




Predictably, there's more hushpuppy here than chili as I assume the extra batter was needed to contain a food usually found in a bowl.  The chili was a bland mix of ground beef, beans, chili powder, cumin and whatever else Homer Simpson sniffed in the air 15 years ago.  I really liked the hushpuppy crust, though, as its cornmeal origins were a natural accompaniment for the chili.  However, the side of nacho cheese dippin' sauce was ultimately superfluous as it suffocated the other flavors and textures. 

This was the perfect mishmash of "awesome" and "meh", so we'll grade it accordingly.  Grade: 2.5 

Sweet Potato Tater Tots -- At this point, panic is starting to set in.  We're halfway through the afternoon and I hadn't eaten anything that I'd score better than average.  And, considering my previous experiences with sweet potato fries, this would be the proverbial roll of the dice.  When done right -- thin-cut and crispy -- sweet potato fries can be fantastic.  But, too many establishments serve them up as thick-cut sponges that retain a quart of grease apiece. 




The sweet potato tater tots were almost executed perfectly.  The exterior was light and crisp -- almost potato chip-like -- while the interior was texturally fantastic.  The heavy, fibrous characteristics inherent within Thanksgiving's favorite root tuber were nowhere to be found.  In its place was a mildly sweet airiness that bordered on addicting. 

Oh, but the execution.  The tater tots desperately needed salt.  Not a lot, but singular shot from the shaker -- two, tops -- would've elevated the flavors.  And, much to my surprise, the tots weren't served with any sort of dipping sauce.  I've been spoiled by the creamy pumpkin-spiced sauce that several places serve, so I'd have settled for something simple and citrusy. Not even one lonely lemon wedge?  My, what could've been.    Grade: 3.5 

Fried Pineapple -- Both the sun and my stomach were starting to set and I was unsure if I'd ever find the one annual menu item that would knock my socks off.  Every year something edible earns one of my exaggerated "500 (out of 5)" scores.  Could last year's maple bacon donut EVER be toppled from its sticky, porcine pedestal?  It's up to you, inexplicably fried Hawaiian fruit. 




By themselves, pineapples are in my pantheon of favorite fruits.  And, the fried pineapples were certainly the most visually appealing meal I ate all day.  Perfect golden-brown rings lightly topped with a bittersweet chocolate sauce and a pinch of powdered sugar.  It took a few bites for me to adjust to the crispiness, but the pineapple's natural flavors were mostly unchanged. 

If anything, the heat from the grease muted the pineapple's already mellow notes.  It also led to the evaporation of some of the fruit's juiciness.  In simplest terms, this was really a pineapple upside down cake turned inside out.  In my terms?  Dee-LISH!  Grade: 4 

Bacon-Wrapped Jalapeño Peppers -- These were referred to as "Porky Poppers" on the menu, but I'm proud to report I kept my dignity and ordered using their literal description.  That same dignity was temporarily misplaced when I popped one of the porkies, whole, in my mouth.  See that toothpick-looking thing running perpendicular to each jalapeño pepper?  Turns out it's an actual toothpick.  And, when mindlessly munched on, they're more abrasive on the inside of your mouth than a bowl of Quizno's-cooked Cap'n Crunch. 




I appreciated the use of fresh jalapeños.  They're hotter and more flavorful than the pickled imposters found on ballpark nachos.  The bacon was bountiful and the peppers were stuffed with gouda.  Unfortunately, the sweetness of the gouda was mostly smothered from the saltiness of the bacon and the spiciness of the peppers.  Given a choice between two of the three flavors coming through, I'd have preferred "sweet" and "salty" or "sweet" and "spicy".  The "salty" and "spicy" territory is already well-trodden convenience store turf.  Grade: 2