Friday, April 27, 2012

Let It Blossom. Let It Grow.

Eric Clapton had one of the finer beards in rock n' roll history, and it must have taken a while for him to grow it to an appropriate and yet tasteful length, but I will give him this. He must have had a higher tolerance for itchiness on his face than I do. This isn't to say that I'm unfamiliar with facial hair itchiness. After all, I've grown several beards at this point in my life and each time I've somehow found the courage to go on letting my face get shaggy. Usually though, I've got some control over how long or when the thing keeps going. A playoff beard is entirely different matter altogether. As I noted last time, I'm letting my whiskers go until New Jersey wins its fourth championship or packs up for the summer, and while it is giving me hours every day of facial irritation, if what happened last night keeps happening, it will keep growing for a while.

And I'm fine with that.

I'm willing to let this thing get as shaggy as humanly possible if it winds up lasting until June, and considering how much salt is starting to show up with the pepper in my facial hair, that's awfully courageous of me. That white hair popping up in some slight patches around my chin is a little more pronounced that I'd like it to be, but I have a slight idea as to where its coming from, and were it not for New Jersey's apparent penchant for getting into overtime with its season on the line in both Game 6 and Game 7, maybe the stress wouldn't be graying me quite so much. After all, I'm only 26, and probably too young to have facial hair that looks so old, but if I'm growing a beard for the sake of the Devils' season and the Devils are causing it to go gray, perhaps it's one of those symbiotic relationships that makes life beautiful.

Or the gray hair is a sign that I should stop so foolishly growing a beard that will have no rational impact on whether or not the Devils can beat the Flyers in the second round. Whatever.

See, Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur seems to have the right idea. He may be turning 40 next weekend, but he's been shaving so the color of his hair doesn't make him appear older than he is -- perhaps another sign that growing a playoff beard is kind of silly. If anyone should know it's someone with three Stanley Cups and someone who, despite his age, still had a virtuoso performance between the pipes in Game 7 last night, stopping 43 of 45 shots in the double overtime thriller. Then again, Marty's age might have eventually shown were it not for the heroics of Adam Henrique, whose double-overtime winner sent the Devils on to the second round for the first time in five years and sent the Panthers home. It may just be a sign that New Jersey needed a little youth to go with its experience. Brodeur has plenty of experience of course. With Game 7 ending after midnight, it ended on the 20th anniversary of his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game appearance. On that day, Henrique, last night's hero, was two whole years old. Then again, I'm guessing Marty won't really care about the age difference if Henrique keeps doing things like this.

Monday, April 23, 2012

See, I Don't Really Know Much About Hockey, Is The Thing

So, some of you might remember last fall when I became a huge television star in Canada noted for his absolutely remarkable hockey acumen. In fact, my hockey acumen was so strong that I felt comfortable going on the public record declaring that without any argument, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the San Jose Sharks were guaranteed to win the Stanley Cup at long last. After all, the team had been to two consecutive Western Conference Finals and after years of knocking on the door, the offseason additions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat were surely going to be the missing ingredients that finally helped the Sharks blow that door down.


Well San Jose rewarded me with an impressively mediocre regular season that very nearly had them missing the playoffs, and when they finally did manage to clinch the seventh seed in the West, all it won them was a meek first-round exit at the hand of the far superior St. Louis Blues.

But not to fear! For the ability to have foresight and understand that teams are not the same in October as they are in April is important, and as such, I was able to amend my picks. Right here on this very site I made my choices for the Stanley Cup Playoffs' opening round known, and while I didn't post my predictions all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, I was not shy about telling the world that absolutely, no questions asked, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this year's Stanley Cup was going to finally be won by the Vancouver Canucks, who had just won their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy for having the best regular season record. And what's more, they would win that title over the red hot Pittsburgh Penguins, who were loaded with talent and finished the season as strongly as any team in the League.

Seemed like a no-brainer, right?

Well, I certainly thought so, and I wasn't the only one. Sports Illustrated also foresaw a Pittsburgh-Vancouver Final that would brighten the television set and warm the soul. Somehow that didn't come to pass, however, as yesterday, the Flyers capped a six-game series win over a disappointing Penguins outfit, and the Canucks saw their dream shockingly die at the hands of Jonathan Quick and the upstart L.A. Kings, another sexy offseason Cup pick that had had a shockingly disappointing season.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Another Trip Into The Belly Of The Beast

I don't particularly like Philadelphia. I've made that pretty clear over the years. For those of you who love Philadelphia or are from there or think I'm irrational for disdaining an entire city, I will make it clear that my distaste is entirely sports related, as Philly is the only city to pull off the unique feat of having three different teams that are direct rivals of mine in three different sports. It's pretty remarkable really. As a result, going into the city of brotherly love is always something of an awkward experience for me, but I've managed to do it a few times in recent years, and the most recent one came this past Saturday when my good friend Mike Wong asked me if I wanted to head down to the Mets-Phillies game so he could see Citizens Bank Park.

This created a few potentially awkward happenstances. For one, it's Philadelphia, the evilest place ever in the whole wide world. For two, since the Phillies were playing the Mets, naturally I would have to show up in my finest Mets regalia, therefore inviting the sharpest scorn that Philadelphia has to offer (though in this case sharp just means cruel, not clever).

These were, of course, risks I was willing to take because it was a chance to see my (at the time) 5-2 1/2 game out of first place Mets. Naturally, I expect the Mets to maintain that position all season long. That said, I anticipated the standard vitriol after we arrived at the stadium only to find that it took a whole 25 minutes before someone said anything even slightly cruel to me. What the hell was that about? Perhaps they all knew that I was already busy being cruel to my insides by buying the stadium's trademark sandwich, the Schmitter. For any idea of what that entails they give you this handy dandy diagram while you're waiting in line, and even if it doesn't look quite as impressive as you expect, when you finish it, you realize they weren't lying. It's a filling beast.

Or perhaps the Philly fans were all distracted checking out the statues because, well, this stadium has a lot of them. I tried to scrounge up visits to as many of them as I could find and I'm pretty sure I hit them all both in and outside of the stadium, happening upon Robin Roberts, Mike Schmidt, Harry Kallas, Richie Ashburn and Steve Carlton. Oh, and of course there's a plaque in the Phillies Hall of Fame honoring Jon Kruk. I can't say I would blame them -- the stadium, much as I dislike the team that plays there -- is really pretty nice. Plus they sell Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy which was pretty perfect for the weather we had.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Well, It's Too Bad That's Over. On To Something Else Now.

So Monday night when I attended my first Mets game of the year, something magical happened. They actually rallied from an early three-run deficit and won a Major League Baseball game with a walk-off single by Daniel Murphy.

I know. I was shocked, too.

See of all the doom-day soothsayers and negative prognosticators, I wasn't one of the extreme dramatists that assumed this team was due for a 100-loss season. But I won't tell you I thought a 100-win campaign was in the offing either. This wasn't going to be a particularly good season. Maybe not terrible -- they might come close to 80 wins -- but I was perfectly comfortable making other plans for late October.

That the team opened the season with a sweep of rival Atlanta and then won a fourth game Monday night was some cause for hastened exuberance and, well, surprise as I entailed earlier this week. So of course it only makes sense that in a span of roughly ten minutes Tuesday night, not only did the Mets have two devastatingly embarrassing -- and ultimately game-costing -- blunders, but the team also announced that David Wright had broken a bone in his pinkie the night before setting up what every doctor thinks will be a few days off or a potentially brief stint on the DL and every fan thinks will be a year-long nagging injury that probably causes him, and the franchise's hopes of ever being good again to die in a fire.

That last bit may have been a bit dramatic, but the psychology of a Mets fan is not exactly a stable situation. At least this anxiety was somewhat mitigated by the news that apparently, if he can prove himself healthy for long stretches and return to the dominant form he appeared to show last week, the team's front office is leaning toward offering Wright a long-term extension, which would silence the critics who assume he is as good as traded at this year's deadline. Still, having Wright out for a spell and seeing the team -- on a day when they paid homage to the 1962 Mets by lowering ticket prices to 1962 levels -- do their best impression of the 1962 Mets, who set the mark for modern futility with 120 losses. To make matters worse this all had to coincide with a fully stocked breakfast muffin, bagel, croissant buffet at work Wednesday and National Grilled Cheese Day on Thursday when it just happens to be passover. Dealing with another 156 games of this makes me wish I had some sort of wonder drug to avoid the pain.

Maybe the Mets will redeem themselves this weekend in Philadelphia -- I'll be there tomorrow to see if they do -- but even if they don't manage to put themselves together, I will have a distraction.

Monday, April 9, 2012

If Anyone Reminds The Mets That They're The Mets, I Will Punch Them

So yesterday there was a pretty nutty stretch of about 10 minutes in the middle of the day. Perhaps some of you, like me, caught the excitement, but if not, here's a refresher. The New York Mets, in what was already a bonkers game that featured a near no-hitter by Jon Niese and a near blown seven-run lead by, uh, guess who, closed out a shocking season-opening series sweep of the rival Atlanta Braves.

That, in and of itself, was a pretty badass way to start the new season. After all, most people are expecting the New York Mets to do a whole lot of nothing this year -- well, not nothing, just losing -- so to see them open up the year with a sweep against their hated rivals and, in the eyes of some including myself, the prohibitive NL East favorites, was more than just a little confidence booster.

In fact, it was a fairly nice capper to the first week of baseball as a whole. In addition to the Mets' three season opening victories, I managed to have an enjoyable whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh -- my first that lasted more than 10 hours -- in which I managed to see the stunningly beautiful PNC Park as well as catch the Penguins-Rangers game later that night. Strangely, in all my years of sports going, this was the first time I could actually recall seeing two professional events in one day, though for my host Blake and I, the discussion quickly moved to whether or not we could find a way to see a grand total of three sporting events in one day. It's tough but it's doable if the schedule breaks right. It may be my newest target for a life goal.

Pittsburgh is a lovely city with a certain authenticity to it that makes me actually understand why people who currently have or used to live there are so damn insistent about how much they love it. It's a culturally varied and vibrant and surprisingly beautiful place with a variety of things to do and some really good food. And by really good food I mean, if you're ever suicidal and considering killing yourself by cholesterol, Pittsburgh is the place to go. After all, at the Pirates game Thursday I enjoyed what is tied with the Lobel's Steak Sandwich at Yankee Stadium for my favorite food ever consumed at a ball park -- the Pierogi Stacker at Manny's BBQ stand along the left field wall. It's a tremendous concoction of pulled pork, pierogies and fried onions on a pretzel roll, and it's just large enough to satisfy you without knocking you out for the rest of the game.

As if I wasn't happy enough with that one, the next day I traveled to a restaurant on the south side known as Fat Head's Saloon where I got a sandwich as big as, well, my head. I decided to indulge in the Chick'n Little, a massive pile of chicken tenders dipped in buffalo sauce, ham, bacon, two fried eggs, provolone, American and hot pepper mayo. It is a towering and intimidating item, and it was in no uncertain terms the greatest gustatory challenge of my life, but naturally, I conquered both it at the huge pile of potato slices next to it. In doing so it was almost as if I had conquered the entire city of Pittsburgh as a whole.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Celebrating My Grossly Inaccurate 2012 MLB Preview in Pittsburgh

It's one of the stranger curiosities of my life that in my relatively extensive travels around the United States -- seriously, who else makes a point to go to Auburn Hills, Michigan for a basketball game -- that I've never really been to Pittsburgh. To be fair, "never" isn't exactly honest. As a sophomore in college I did a road trip over spring break to help create a play room for third-world children that were flown to the U.S. by the World Healing Organization to get free surgery to fix facial deformities as well as build bridges for the Virginia Nature Conservancy. It was a fun experience, the highlight of which was that I got to walk around in one of those arm-pit high pairs of rubber pants that you keep yourself dry with in a river.

The reason I bring this all up is because the drive from Chicago and Virginia Beach being as long as it is -- and as depressing considering a 25-year-old Swiss grad student on the trip named Serkan decided to suggest "Tears in Heaven" for the road trip mix CD -- we broke it into two haves and spent the night in a church in Pittsburgh's Shady Side neighborhood which, despite the name, is apparently quite trendy. Aside from the fact that the Church had a duckpin bowling alley in it, little else from the trip is remarkable -- or at least worth mentioning in relation to Pittsburgh -- but those few hours there are really all I know of it. This is pretty surprising considering a) I've traveled around the U.S. quite a bit and b) I actually know a decent number of people have lived or still live in Pittsburgh.

But that all changes tonight.

Tonight I will board a plane for the Steel City where in a whirlwind 48 hours my friend Blake and I will paint the town red -- what with the ketchup and all -- and strike two new teams off the list in the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins play in a brand-spankin' new arena complete with a big statue of Mario Lemieux out front, which should be nice, though I'm a bit heartbroken that I never got to witness a game in the old Mellon Arena. But in all honesty, it's the Pirates for which I am most excited. After all, I've been to two dozen different Major League stadiums with plenty good and bad, but I've never been to this one and from anyone who has been there all I have heard is that it just might be the best stadium in all of baseball. Some people may not agree, but it certainly can't be the dumbest thing anyone's said lately.

In fact, this has been a week of relative non-news after the recent Manning-palooza and Tebow-ganza. The most interesting things to happen are the slew of non-changes to the NFL's uniforms now that Nike has unveiled its versions -- though for the record, while I am not at all ok with this weird silver necktie gizmo on the Giants' new jerseys, thank God I don't root for the Seattle Seahawks -- and a lame story some schmuck wrote about the Rangers unveiling a big blue train in New York.