Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Consoled by Consol

On Saturday, DB~ and I went with our friends (and their 18 month old) to tour the new Consol Energy Center, the soon-to-be home to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I'm not really sure how to say this properly, so....it was kind of bland. I found the color scheme to be very laid back and soothing in the concourses, with a lot of pale yellows and beiges. I loved the fact that you can walk around the entire circumference of the concourse and be able to see the ice at all times (especially in the top section).

But there were a lot of things that I wasn't sure about. Can anyone explain the pattern of the gold-backed seats to me? At first I thought it might be a Fibonacci sequence of every 1, 2, then 3, then 5 rows, but that didn't work out. DB~ thought it may have something to do with handicapped access or special seating, but uh-uh.

I found it somewhat interesting that the Consol is saturated with pictures of Sidney Crosby, but very, very few of Geno Malkin. I found his absence very telling as to who will be here long-term.

And the Kids Zone? It was full of hard surfaces and sterile colors. And as our friends pointed out...good idea to give a bunch of rowdy kids access to hockey sticks. It had Wii Sports set up. Good to see we can get the kids out of the house for a night so they can be addicted to gaming consoles somewhere different. /end cranky mid-30's man rant/

The California University Conference Center was very bland and utilitarian. Who needs to come downtown to get a lights-on Powerpoint projector and a conference table? Do people not have these? And not have to fight traffic and pay for parking?

In the Lexus Club, you can survey the city out of the wall of glass windows and stare at the sad remains of the Mellon Arena. Sort of like looking at your wife's grave as you blow through the cemetery in a convertible with your new blond trophy wife. The luxury suites, at least the ones open to the public or visible from the First Niagara Zone/Captain Morgan Lounge were nothing special. Certainly not as nice as the ones at PNC Park, which I had the pleasure of being in twice through no merit of my own.

Overall it will be a fun place to watch Sidney Crosby and the boys bring home another Stanley Cup, but just don't go expecting the Taj Mahal.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Human Stock Market

With the signing last week of Luis Heredia by the Pirates, I thought it might be time to share my views on baseball players, in general, and prospects, specifically.

There may have been a time in days gone by, when the game was a more romantic one, that baseball players were felt to be part of a community. The first baseman was a guy you could have a beer with. And in many cases, you probably could see that first baseman at the local bar after the game.

Nowadays when a player does something for the community, 9 times out of 10 it feels like a cynical ploy to garner goodwill on the team's part (or the player has done something wrong with the law and is doing it as part of his community service obligation). The game has become a jaded business enterprise. Most of the joy of the game has been eroded away at the major league level by scandal and bad behavior. A person's favorite player rarely stays with one team anymore and in the case of a small-market team, like the Pirates, the favorite player may only be there for 4 or 5 years before he gets too expensive.

As a result, players have been reduced to pawns on a chess board played by business moguls. In today's game, the new wave of GM's have realized that young players are a valuable commodity. For the first 3 full years of a player's career, the team is only obligated to pay them the minimum salary which ranges from roughly $400,000 to $450,000 during those 3 years. The 3 years after that, the player can go through the arbitration process in which he can be paid 40%, 60%, and 80% of his true market value (as determined by an arbitrator if it gets that far). Only after 6 full years does that player achieve true free agency.

This new wave of GM's has made these young major league players and the prospects that percolate through the minors into the equivalent of stocks in the stock market. A player garnered on the international market, like Heredia or Exicardo Cayonez, can be thought of like an Initial Public Offering. IPO's are usually reserved for the sexy stocks in the business world or technology sector. With the international players, there's a buzz around these players before July 2 (the IPO's announcement date in the stock market analogy) and no one really knows for sure how much the international player will sign for at the end.

A player garnered through the regular draft in June (players from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico) is more like a regularly traded stock. The first round players, even with the high signing bonuses and sometime-major league contracts, are paid well below their true market value they could garner as free agents. Think of these players within the first 10 rounds as companies that most people on the street have heard of and would be able to purchase. Jameson Taillon would be like a mid-size bank, not a BNY Mellon or Wells Fargo, but maybe a PNC...a solid investment as a stock but affordable for anyone to buy the stock as part of their portfolio.

Players after the 10th round, who for the most part sign for $20,000 or less, are like penny stocks. Everyone gets a "hot tip" from time to time from a friend, or a friend of a friend, about a stock that is guaranteed to take off in the very near future. This could be, hypothetically, an oil exploration company that has a sizeable option on a huge tract of land in an unstable African country. You think, "What the heck. If it hits, I'm swimming in cash for just a small investment." Then you wake up one day and read that the President of this banana republic has died and the country has been taken over by the military junta. And then the bottom of the oil industry falls out. Hypothetically of course. Needless to say, that penny stock didn't develop as you hoped, but you really didn't invest much. That's like a 35th round pick signed for $5000.

And just like the real stock market, there are the true blue chips stocks. The Apples, the Googles, the Berkshire Hathaways. These stocks are usually very expensive and it seems like you always buy them high. There aren't sales on these types of stocks. You're buying them knowing their past performance and can safely project their future. You buy them to buffer your portfolio, not necessarily get rich off them. These stocks are equivalent to the first tier of free agents each year. This year, Cliff Lee is like Google. When Alex Rodriguez was a free agent the first time, he was like Apple....Apple was already pricy, but you knew it/he was still going up in performance.

Essentially this human stock market serves to de-humanize these players. You sometimes just think of them as assets and forget they are real people. I sometimes catch myself thinking in a very mechanical fashion about these players, trying not to get too attached to them. Because you never know when a company will buy out your company or when your company will go bankrupt.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tamari - West meets East in Lawrenceville

Within the past year or so, an intriguing restaurant opened in Lawrenceville called Tamari. It is a fusion restaurant of Latin and Japanese cuisines. DB~ and I have had it on our list of places to go, but didn't check it out until last night. We were joined by DB~'s younger sister, who is the most adventurous of the three of us when it comes to sushi. For the most part, DB~ and I are sushi wimps, mostly just eating california rolls. But we went to Plum for Valentine's Day and had two fantastic maki rolls there -- one was a salmon/cream cheese/avacado roll and the other was a tempura shrimp roll. So we try to be adventurous.

Tamari has in short order made it on to most of the Best of Pittsburgh food lists due to its seamless blending of Latin and Asian flavors. Tamari takes the whole concept of "fusion" very seriously as they have both Latino and Asians working in the restaurant together. And some of the patrons take the fusion concept seriously, too. Like the caucasian guy with his Asian girlfriend next to me. He was watching the Steeler game on the TV, as we sat at the bar for our seats, with such insightful commentary as "Good push by the line there." Meanwhile, his date was probably aware that the Steelers were the team in black and gold. Maybe.

Tamari is a very tough spot to get a table, due mostly to the fact that there are very few tables inside. There are 3 eating areas: the bar (where we ate), the kitchen seating (bar seating where you can watch them make the dishes), and regular seats (probably only 10 tables, tops). When we called at noon for reservations, they only had 4 pm and 10 pm. We chanced it at 7 pm, knowing we could go to Piccolo Forno as a backup, but got lucky and got 3 seats at the bar with a full menu.

The bartender is not a server, I understand that, but he still rushed us to make up our minds at times. And I had to ask for a 2nd menu. I didn't even try for a third. The veins on his biceps had their own veins, so I wasn't going to push my luck. He was probably on a huge Red Bull bender anyway.

We settled on the following dishes, knowing that we were going to share them amongst the 3 of us:
TNT maki roll -- tempura fried tuna, yellowtail, salmon and avacado with a spicy aioli
Lobster sushi platter -- lobster, avacado, cucumber with a lobster fritter served in the lobster shell
Eel and avacado maki roll
Pulled Pork Tostado -- I had to try something Latin

The three sushi dishes were all served on a giant platter and like every good food blogger I took a picture. Or when DB~ said halfway through "Do you want to take a picture for the blog?" D'OH!! In the picture above, the TNT is on top, the lobster is in the foreground, the eel/avacado is in the middle and my tostada is tossed on the left hand side. Just picture double the amount of food as in the picture.

Everything was fantastic. I heartily recommend the TNT if you go. The flavors and the aioli mix perfectly. The lobster, especially the fritter, was great too. DB~'s sister had the eel/avacado roll and semi-peer-pressured me into trying it. It was like an after-school special, except for urbanite adults. It was a little squishy, but not as bad as you would think.

We were close enough to the kitchen seating area that we could watch the sushi chefs do their thing. It is truly an art form. A few years ago, I bought a sushi recipe book and the mats, special rice, vinegars to make my own sushi. I made it once and then remembered (at the time) that I didn't like sushi that much. But I'm transfixed by watching pros make it at restaurants. It is edible art.

The interior decor of Tamari is well-done, but not "wow". The walls are done in a very subtle celery shade of green. The bar has a great rippled copper sheeting backsplash. And the dividing line between the restaurant and the bathrooms is a beaded curtain of tiny steel balls. This reminded me of two things: 1) One of my favorite movies, Fletch -- "It's all ball bearings nowadays" and 2) Get Smart -- Max pushes aside a beaded curtain and all the beads fall off on to the floor. They may have been better served putting a runner track into the floor and anchoring the beaded steel ball curtain into it.

The sushi was fantastic and could be the best in the city. I thought the prices were fair too. My tostada was very filling for $8, especially if you split a sushi platter with someone. Each person could eat for $20 at Tamari. Go check it out. If you take someone from a different culture, you get bonus points.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Kansas City Royals - now that's how a farm system performs

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to have some accountability for my statements. Too often on the Interwebs people make bold statements and then never go back to say "Uhh...yeah...my bad on that one."

Well, this post is me saying "Uhh...yeah...my bad on that one."

Back in January, I ranked all 30 farm systems based primarily on the Baseball America Top 10's. By and large I stand by those rankings, but there is one writeup that I would like to have back. For the Royals at #14 I wrote:

"Next to the Cubs, this is the farm system that I predict will be drastically over-rated pre-season and shown not to be ready for prime time at the end."
"They have a great collection of arms with Montgomery, Arguelles, Crow, Duffy, Melville, and Lamb but they need to be tested. Hosmer and Moustakas need to prove themselves as well."

Well, consider them proven. This is the number 1 farm system going into 2011 and it's not very close. Hosmer is over his hand and vision issues and has a 956 OPS at AA as a 20 year old, on the heels of a 974 OPS at A+. Moustakas scorched the earth at AA with a 1100 OPS as a 21 year old and is keeping his head above water at AAA. Wil Myers has emerged as an offensive force, if not exactly a defensive whiz at catcher. He is a 19 year old with ridiculously good plate discipline that put up a 908 OPS at Low A and a 990 OPS at High A to date.

As for the pitchers, Montgomery has been hurt for a good chunk of the year, but when healthy has shown his #1 or #2 potential as a 20 year old in AA. He has averaged a K/IP and allowed a .213 BAA. Crow and Melville have not been effective this year and Arguelles has been hurt all year. Danny Duffy went off the reservation for a while, but he is back and in his usual consistently effective form. John Lamb is close to jumping Mike Montgomery as the top pitcher in the organization, due to his lack of injury history, as he has put up gaudy numbers as a 19 year old that was recently promoted to AA. At A+, he had well over a K/IP and a .219 BAA.

All this plus they recently drafted Christian Colon, a well-regarded SS prospect. The future is exceedingly bright for the Royals. It's a future that I was very down on in January, but bullish on in August.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Embury - Old Time Cocktails

If you ever wondered what it must have been like to drink in a speakeasy, but aren't real fond of wondering what cholera and black lung were like back in the 20's, then take a trip down to the edge of the Strip District to Embury.

Embury is located on the bottom floor of the Firehouse Lounge (2216 Penn Avenue). They strive to serve a cocktail in the truest sense of the word. Some of the cocktails they serve have been extinct from a bartender's knowledge base for decades.

Embury also uses the freshest ingredients such as lemon peels passed through a flame for zest, clapping a mint leaf between two hands to "wake up" the mint flavors, and making all of their bitters from scratch. As an added bonus, the bartenders (should they be called cocktail artists?) dress the part of looking like they stepped out of the Roaring 20's.

As for the space of Embury, it is very small and dark. There are probably no more than six seats at the bar and another eight tables to sit and converse. It has a library/study feel to it. You sort of feel like Professor Plum is going to pop out with a lead pipe at some point. It's really better suited for the fall or winter, rather than summer, but it works at any time.

Couple points to note. First, each cocktail is handcrafted right in front of you as it is ordered. Expect each cocktail to take 5 minutes to make. Second, you pay for artistry. Each cocktail is $10, so this isn't a place that you go and get your crunk on.

But it's worth checking out at least once. And if you hate it, you can go upstairs to Firehouse and bump and grind and chug Miller Lite.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This river don't go to no Aintry

Every year my family has a reunion the first full weekend of August at a lake about 40 minutes from Deep Creek Lake.

Last year, a few of us went to the top of the mountain at Wisp to check out the newly opened Adventure Sports Center International (it opened in 2008). They offer all sorts of outdoorsy-type of activities from mountain biking to rock climbing to zip lining (even geocaching seminars!), but the centerpiece is a gorgeous looking man-made river course for whitewater rafting and kayaking.

The base of it is poured concrete with on-site quarried stones lining the perimeter. The water is pumped up the mountain from Deep Creek Lake, which is a considerable elevation difference. The water is then pumped through the raging course and wave shapers can be raised and lowered to create the class of rapids. The weekends usually have stronger Class 3/4 rapids, while the weekdays have 2/3 rapids. A few of us wanted to whitewater raft last year, but were unprepared for the trip. It's best to wear a swimsuit and closed toed water shoes and we did not have either.

This year the four of us would not be denied. It was me and DB~ and my cousin and her boyfriend. On the drive there, I seemed to be the only one not regretting the decision to do it. There was a lot of gallows humor among the group, especially when the rest of the people at the reunion pooled their money to guess who would go overboard first. I was the runaway winner of the prediction pool.

The water she was a ragin' on Sunday, that's for sure. The place was packed on this perfectly sunny day. We thought the water would be cold, but it was pretty pleasant. We just hoped that none of the four of us would experience it unnecessarily.

Our group was matched with another couple. As we were boarding (wearing our personal floatation devices and brain buckets as they call them) our guide asked us where we were all from. DB~ said we were from Pittsburgh and the other couple said they were too. That's not really a surprise as Deep Creek Lake is pretty much Pittsburgh's playground at this point. But when we asked what part of Pittsburgh, the guy ended up not only being from the same Township where I live, but 5 minutes from my house. Seriously...what are odds that we would be in the same 6 person raft?

I've done a lot of canoeing and in recent years I have gotten into kayaking, but I'm no expert by any means. But it felt natural to me when our guide was explaining the commands he would bark out to us over the next 2 hours. I dragged me and DB~ to the front section of the boat. Little did we realize that when you whitewater raft, you actually sit on the edge of the raft and not in the raft. All the easier for you to fall out I guess.

We left the float pond and got the raft on to the conveyor belt that would take us up to the top of the course that we would eventually run 7 times in 2 hours. It's a short paddle from the top to the first waterfall on the course. By the 3rd trip we learned to avoid the "parking garage", an area off to the side where the currents and eddies will take you if you all don't paddle together off the waterfall to avoid.

The 2nd rapids were also prone to congestion with other rafts and this is also where we smeared a kayaker one time. We bumped off a rock and pinned him against another rock as he tried to slide past us. He eventually got flipped over and it took him a maddening few extra seconds to rotate himself back over. The 3rd and 4th rapids are, in our opinion, the toughest on the course. They both had huge churning wakes at the bottom of them on Sunday and this caused a lot of turbulence in the raft. The very first run I cracked skulls with my cousin who was sitting behind me diagonally in the 2nd row.
The 5th rapid seemed tame, but we let our guard down during one run (we were getting cocky and starting crowing about how great of a run we had). There was a tricky double dip that we didn't brace for and 2 of us (not me...I didn't "win" the pool) went overboard. It was my cousin's boyfriend and the other girl from Pittsburgh. The other girl from Pittsburgh looked like a tuna being dragged into a fishing boat as she flopped all around after getting rescued. She was probably a little scared, I guess from getting bounced out and dragged through the rapids.

The 6th and final rapid is the descent into the float pool. Our guide encouraged us to jump out and experience the rush of flying through the area and into the wake. We thought he was crazy at first, but we watched others do it on other rafts. On the last run, 5 of the 6 of us did it so that we wouldn't have to climb back in the raft ungracefully. DB~ said she sort of eased her way out of the raft after we hit the churning wake! I did not like this at all, as I got caught up in the wake underwater and semi-panicked while I tried to resurface.

Even though DB~ nearly smacked me with the end of her paddle for the better part of 2 hours and she held on to the "chicken strap" during the rough times, I was proud of her for doing it. She's not really a water person, but she woman'ed up and did it anyway. The picture in this post was taken by DB~ after we finished up.

We were all really sore from doing this. It's a real workout and I think a lot of us tensed up during the excursion. Maybe next year I'll try the whitewater kayaking...on a lesser class of rapids.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hell is round the corner, hot like a sauna

One of the few places I have not written about yet is Phoenix.
Phoenix is not for everyone. It's hot. All the time. There's not a lot of greenery. There is a lot of brownery and sandery.

But Phoenix, and the whole Southwest in general, gives you a feeling of wanting to explore and a feeling of wanting to just get in a car and drive. Yes, Phoenix is a major city and it has its share of traffic problems, but in very little time you can be out in the desert and it will be just, 500 cactuses, and miles of road ahead of you. In a way, it's peaceful.

Enough touchy-feely stuff. Let's talk places and food. That's what this blog is about right?
The last time I was in Phoenix was 2004 in October. To be specific, I actually stayed in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix that within 25 years will just be absorbed into the metropolis of Phoenix probably. It was a cool 90 degrees the first weekend of that month. While there, I asked a shop owner, "What do you do in the summer when it's 110 degrees?" He said, "Well...you leave your air conditioned house, get in your air conditioned car, go to your air conditioned job and then at the end of the day, you do all that in reverse. And maybe, at 11 pm, you can get in your pool when it's 90 degrees outside."

I went to the last Diamondbacks game of the year, which was the year that the D-Backs went something like 51-111. But there were a lot of people at Bank One Ballpark (now it is Chase Field) that day. One of the people along the 3rd base line, sitting across the aisle from me, was a real culture vulture that had a tattoo of a naked lady (absolutely anatomically accurate) running up his entire leg from ankle to knee. It was a sight to behold. If I had my phone that I have today back then in 2004, that picture would be up here. I can't imagine how someone could go out in public, around all kinds of kids, and think that's a good idea.

Bank One Ballpark/Chase Field kind of sucks. First, unbeknownst to me, on any hot sunny day apparently they close the roof. I was all lathered up with sunscreen and felt like a dolt with the roof closed. Second, with the roof closed the ballpark kind of looks like a giant airplane hangar. I was looking around for the Spruce Goose or a stray dirigible. Third, the pool in RF is trashy. Any party of people can rent it and on this day a group of kids were using it as their personal bathtub.

I ate at some great places, but the one I wanted to highlight was Pinnacle Peak's. It's an old fashioned cowboy BBQ place waaaayyyy outside of town. I think they semi-delight in being difficult to find. The steaks are not like at Morton's or Hyde Park....they're chewy and slightly overcooked, just like the cowboys probably liked them. The sides are baked beans, potatoes, and vegetables. Nothing fancy. If you wear a tie, they cut it off and hang it on the ceiling, which has led to people wearing all sorts of ugly ties on purpose.

If you're into architecture like I am, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West is outside Phoenix. It was his home near the end of his life where he escaped to recharge himself. It is now home to one of his academies of architecture.

There is plenty to do in Phoenix and the surrounding area. It is just a totally different mindset than what we are used to on the East Coast, that's all.

PS -- We're going to Deep Creek, MD this weekend and one of the things we're doing is going to be whitewater rafting at Wisp. If I survive, that will be the next blog post. Good Luck, DBS and DB~!