Friday, November 30, 2012

Are Sports Still Fun Anymore?

As I was driving around yesterday listening to Vinnie and Cook discuss the rampant conference-jumping of universities nowadays, it dawned on me how depressing the current landscape of sports has become.

On the college level, there has been a huge upheaval of migration from conference to conference by universities in the last 2-3 years.  Pitt has gone from the Big East to the ACC along with Syracuse.  Louisville just jumped ship to the ACC, too, leaving the Big East in shambles.  This is after West Virginia went to the Big 12 and Rutgers (off all places) left this week to go to the Big 10.  Similar jumping has occurred with SEC/PAC-10/Big 12/Big 10 schools, too.  The reason?  TV contracts.  Soon there will be just 4 "super conferences" of 16 teams and everyone else will fight for table scraps at the college level, especially for football which is the driving source of revenue for most universities.

Things are even more depressing at the pro level.  We're now moving into three months of a lockout in the NHL, which is the 2nd lockout in the last 9 seasons.  In this case it's not TV contracts, as hockey is more of a regional sport than a national one, but rather it is mega-millionaire owners fighting with millionaire players on who gets to keep more of the revenue stream.  After the 1st lockout back in the early 2000's, I thought the NHL was on solid footing with a salary cap and their recent TV deal with NBC Sports.  The Winter Classic was the envy of all sports (aside from the Super Bowl) and it seemed like all was well.  But the NHL stubbornly refuses to admit that the "Sun Belt Experiment" has been a failure and continually tries to prop up failing franchises in Phoenix, Carolina, and Florida.  Meanwhile, Toronto could easily support a 2nd franchise, Quebec has renewed interest in bringing a team back, Seattle is courting the NHL for a team for its new planned arena, and there's always Kansas City (!).

I'm not an NBA fan at all, but just last year they endured a lockout, as well.  Again, millionaires fighting millionaires, but in my mind it's even more egregious when you look at the salaries that NBA players make.  You would think that having only 12-14 guys on a roster would make owning a team relatively affordable, but salaries in the NBA are insane.

Last year, the NFL locked out their players too, but didn't lose any of the season.  That's the most unreal lockout to me, as the NFL has sports business down to a science.  A salary cap, ample revenue sharing, scads of TV deals, and multi-media licensing should keep everyone's pockets stuffed with Benjamins and not  fighting over getting more.  But greed is a real bitch sometimes....

This all leads me to the sport I followed closest and that's baseball.  Part of my sadness with sports was hammered home this week when the Dodgers announced their new LOCAL television deal with Fox that will pay them $280 million per year for the next 25 years.  Even with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement's harsh luxury taxes starting at $189M for payroll, the Dodgers have been spending like drunken sailors since the new ownership group took over last year.  And now we see the full story on why they are doing it.  Even if the Dodgers have a $210M payroll this year (my estimate), their entire payroll will be paid for before one cent is collected from the national TV deals, one ticket is sold, one boiled hot dog is put in a bun, one Matt Kemp jersey paid for by a fan.

That deal, in comparison with the estimated $20M the Pirates get from ROOT Sports, makes it seem hopeless for the Pirates to ever compete on a realistic basis ever again.  These mega TV deals signed by the Rangers, Angels, and now Dodgers (along with some other eye-popping deals in mid-markets) are just really deflating.

If you look at Cot's Contracts and click on some of the team pages, you can see at the top what the current owner paid for the team and what Forbes estimates it is worth in 2012.  For example, the Pirates were bought by McClatchy and Nutting in 1996 for $92M.  Today, they are estimated at $336M.  The Rockies were purchased in 1992 for $95M and are now worth $454M.  Look at that appreciation in value in just 15-20 years.  Then take a look at what franchises have been sold for in just the past few years:  Dodgers -- $2.1 billion (with a "b"), Astros -- $680M, Padres -- $800M.  Not that I have $92M in my pocket, but that is at least "dream attainable".  But $680M?  That's cartoonish to think that a regular millionaire can own a team anymore.  Franchises will be the playthings of billionaires and corporations for the foreseeable future.  You won't see a Rooney family own a team anytime soon.

Sports are no longer about athletics, but rather a corporate entity that showcases athletes as its product.  TV deals have ruined sports as we used to know them.  The influx of their money is what has caused the exponential growth in player salaries in all sports.  Was this inevitable?  Can it be reversed?  I guess I'm wondering if it is possible for turn back the clock on sports, but I fear that the genie is out of the bottle on this one.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Market Square Holiday Market

On Sunday, DB~ and I went down to PPG Place to check out the Wintergarden Santa display.  On our way over we passed through Market Square and saw the European-style Holiday Market set up in the square.  It consisted of about 10 "sheds", for lack of a better term, that each held a different vendor.

There were vendors selling ornaments, vendors selling hats, vendors selling food, and other vendors selling jewelry.  With a little bit of a chill in the air and some German music and dancing on the stage, you could pretend that you air dropped into Munich.  Sort of.  The Holiday Market is running through December 23rd, so there's still a good three weeks left to check it out.

After the Market, we walked over to the ice rink at PPG Place and watched a packed rink of patrons skating around the rink.  Even though, it was still November, it sure felt like Christmas was right around the corner to us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sewickley Hotel

On Saturday, DB~ and I wanted to take advantage of the seasonally nice weather and enjoy the sunshine.  We drove over to Sewickley and checked out some of the shops along the main drag of Beaver Street.  There's a lot of great little local shops down there, especially a great independent bookstore called Penguin Bookshop.  There are a couple of empty storefronts, including one that says "Buy Local.  Shop Sewickley." -- right next to a Starbucks on the corner.  Someone either has a wicked sense of humor or the definition of irony is lost on them.

For lunch we wanted to go someplace new, so we stopped into the Sewickley Hotel.  As per their menu, the building was built in the 1890's as a waystation for weary travelers, but ceased being a hotel in the 1950's.  Now it provides lunch and dinner featuring an eclectic menu that has Asian, French, and American influences.

I was in the mood for some cured meats, so I went with the Reuben and home fries.  It was a great Thousand Island dressing and the sauerkraut wasn't overly bitter.  The marbled bread was fantastic and just the right texture for the lean corned beef.

DB~ went with the Crab Melt, which was crab meat, artichoke hearts, and melted Cheddar cheese melted over tomato slices and served open face with fries.

The interior of the restaurant is a little dated, with the heavy wood still in effect from the original look of the bar, but I suppose you don't mess with tradition.  Our server was a little indifferent, especially when it came to clearing dishes and refilling drinks.  The Sewickley Hotel also hosts live music three nights a week, so maybe we'll check that out too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Miami Marlins Hit The Ctrl-Alt-Del Button....Again

The electronic baseball world has been abuzz tonight with the rumors of a mega-trade/mega salary dump between the Miami Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays.  The final trade may not be confirmed until Wednesday, but the particulars of the trade seem to be as follows, with the 2013 salaries in parentheses:

Toronto gets -- Jose Reyes ($10M in 2013, $96M guaranteed remaining thru 2018), Mark Buerhle ($11M, $48M remaining thru 2015), Josh Johnson ($13.75M), Emilio Bonifacio ($2.5M estimate thru arbitration), and John Buck ($6M)

Miami gets -- Yunel Escobar ($5M in 2013, two club options thru 2015), Adeiny Hechavaria ($1.75M), Henderson Alvarez ($500K pre-arb), Jeff Mathis ($1.5M), Jake Marisnick (in AA in 2013), Justin Nicolino (in High A in 2013), and Anthony DeSclafani (in High A in 2013)

Where to begin....

Miami offloaded $43.25M of 2013 salaries and a total of $166.25M of future total salary commitments in exchange for a slew of younger players totaling $8.75M of 2013 salaries.  That's lopping of $34.5M of salary in 2013 and allowing them to now totally erase their 2011 offseason free agency binge (the Marlins traded another signee, Heath Bell, to the Diamondbacks last month).

Last year's offseason spree/binge that brought Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buerhle to South Florida, under the pretense that these players would help usher in a new era of Marlin success in a new ballpark, has now been eradicated.  Furthermore, those moves were made to justify the taxpayer-funded new ballpark constructed for the Marlins that opened JUST THIS YEAR.  Jeffrey Loria, the same man that ran the Expos into the ground and then sold them to MLB in exchange for the ability to purchase the Marlins, has completely defrauded the general populace of Miami.

But does anyone in South Florida care?  Are there really loyal Marlins fans at this point?  The term "fire sale" is pretty synonymous with the Miami (Florida) Marlins franchise dating back to the mid-90's when they bought a slew of free agents and won a title with Jim Leyland at the helm in 1997.  They burned that team to the ground and did so again in 2005 after winning the World Series in 2003.

It really is tough to be a Pirates fan at some points, like August and September of 2012 for example, but it must be nigh-impossible to be a Marlins fan.  At this point, how can any fan trust anything said as a commitment by this owner?  Just as importantly, how can any free agent agree to sign a multi-year deal with the Marlins at this point?

It has been said that the Pirates have problems attracting quality free agents due to perceptions about the competence of the front office and competitiveness, but that has to pale in comparison to the feeling on the street about the Marlins.  Imagine what the national and local media would say about the Pirates if they pulled a series of maneuvers such as getting taxpayer funding, making a massive multi-year investment in free agents, then selling those same free agents off after just one year (while also dealing another franchise cornerstone like Hanley Ramirez in-season).  It's just unbelievable that anyone would support the Marlins in 2013.

It's also equally unbelievable that Major League Baseball allows Jeffrey Loria to own a baseball franchise.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nicky's Thai Kitchen

Last Wednesday, the IT consultants suggested that we try Nicky's Thai Kitchen for lunch.  Their office is in the Clark Building by PNC, so it's very easy for them to get up to the North Side and back for lunch.  I picked two of them up at their building and the four of us were at Nicky's in 5 minutes.

Nicky's opens at 11:30 am.  We got there at 11:25 and were waiting outside with 2 other groups.  It must be a good feeling to open the doors to your restaurant and have 3 tables waiting to come in.  The IT guys tell me it gets very busy at lunch.  There's no obvious business area to pull from -- it could be people from Allegheny Center or the North Shore, I suppose, but there were also a lot of young people, too.  Maybe they walked a few blocks over from CCAC.

Nicky's is in a row house on Western Avenue, so you feel like you're walking in for lunch (or dinner) at someone's house and sitting in their dining room.  There's about 12 tables in the dining area, but the guys told me that during warm weather they have outdoor seating of about 12 more tables.

The menu has the full array of standard Thai cuisine -- pad thai, curries, noodle dishes, and the like -- but I wasn't in the mood for something heavy and spicy.  I chose a mango curry with pork as my protein.  One of the other guys ordered a jalapeno chicken dish with peanuts, which was an exercise in language barriers between he and our Thai server.  The server didn't understand "jalapeno", so he pointed to it on the menu.  He nodded approvingly and said, "Jah-lop-e-no" chicken.  With a quizzical look on his face, Brian said "Jalapeno?" and the server said "Jah-lop-e-no".  It was like a rejected sketch from Saturday Night Live.

Here's the Mango Curry with Pork:

The flavors in the curry were fantastic and the mango slices were a nice treat to go with the generous pork portions.  The dish came with some white rice, which I periodically mixed in to the curry to thicken it up.  My only semi-complaint with the pork was that it was a touch chewy and a little overcooked.  But overall it was fantastic.  The highlight of the whole meal was this little blossom stuffed with cream cheese and crab served on the side.  I think they have a whole appetizer portion of those things (Crab Rangoons) that I might get next time.  And check out the artistry on that carrot, too!

The only other complaint, nothing that Nicky's could control, was the fact that 2 women went to lunch and one brought their infant.  The baby would periodically let out huge shrieks and squeals that really took away from the experience.

I will absolutely be taking DB~ back to Nicky's, as she is a big pad thai fan.  I just hope there aren't any screaming kids this time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Move PGH Presentation

After going to Union Pig and Chicken on Wednesday, I met up with my friend Steve to check out the public presentation by Move PGH, the group looking at the transportation needs for the City in the future.  Their report focused on three separate areas: pedestrian/bicycle, road/bridge, and transportation.

The consultants from AECOM put on a decent enough Powerpoint presentation and then took some questions from the approximately 20 people in attendance at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty.  The bicycle contingent was full of earthy, crunchy people and that's a world I just can't relate to.

I spent most of the post-presentation session at the other two layout tables that had the road/bridge improvements and transportation improvements on large maps.  You could directly write your comments on them, commenting on the projects that scored the highest and would be the funding priority.  I put down my suggestion for turning the HOV lane into light rail transit to the North Hills.

From the previously-held workshop sessions, over 300 projects were brainstormed or pulled from Pittsburgh neighborhood vision plans.  Some of the projects that rose to the top, such as a light rail/subway extension from Downtown to Oakland were good to see.  Others like turning 21st Street on the South Side into a greenway seemed like an excuse to shoehorn green technology into the City.

It's good to see Pittsburgh Planning being proactive in anticipating their needs and how to improve anticipated congestion all throughout the City.  Whether they can find the funding for the projects that they have in mind is another story.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Union Pig and Chicken

I was meeting a friend in East Liberty on Wednesday night to attend the MovePGH Transportation workshop meeting.  It started at 6 pm, so originally he and I were going to meet at 5 pm at Kevin Sousa's Union Pig and Chicken just a couple of blocks away from the Carnegie Library.  Turned out he couldn't make it, so I went solo.

The place opened at 5 pm and I got there at 5:05 pm, so needless to say I was the first customer in the door.  It's on the corner of Harvard and Highland (more on that later) in an "economically challenged" section of East Liberty.  Yeah, the easy joke is that all of East Liberty is economically challenged, but South Highland/Centre Avenue with BRGR/Spoon/Abay/Plum, Eastside with Dinette and Whole Foods down the street are decent little zones.

The floor to ceiling glass windows at the front of the house give it a fishbowl type feel and must be unnerving for the hostess to stand there at times.  The inside of the place is a contrast between Scandanavian sweat lodge (replete with dark wood floors and dark wood walls) and preppy funhouse (with the red and pick argyle pattern on one wall to break up the dark tones).  Either way, I didn't mind the interior.

The seating is similar to Sousa's flagship restaurant, Salt of the Earth, in that it is all communal bench style seating.  The benches are broken up in such a manner that 2 people can share one sector of the bench, then there's a gap for leg room, etc.

For my dinner, I had looked online before I went, so I knew I was going for the Beef Brisket ($13).  I wanted something to go with it, so I chose the cornbread ($3) as my side.  Didn't feel like cole slaw or baked beans and wanted something unfussy.

The portion of the brisket was extremely generous.  At least 6 slabs of the meat piled in a haphazard fashion.  It reminded me of my mom's ham loaf recipe that we had a lot as kids.  There are 3 different BBQ sauces at your table -- a standard tomato-based sweet sauce, a liquidy vinegar and chile sauce, and a habanero-infused BBQ.  I tried the first 2, as I didn't want my digestive system to revolt in the middle of a workshop meeting.

I don't know why they bothered to bring a knife out with the brisket.  There is no need as the fork easily made the meat fall apart with little effort.  The char (or "bark") on the brisket was about a 1/4" and was the shield for a small layer of fat that, literally, dissolved in my mouth without chewing it.  I liked the standard BBQ sauce, but found the vinegar chile sauce to be too "liquidy" and tart.  Just my preference, though.

The cornbread was decent, especially in size, but pretty dry.  It had some char on it so it was probably baked at a very high temp (or even put in the same smoker that did the meats?).  Here's where the vinegar BBQ sauce helped out a little bit.

By the time I walked out there were 5 separate groups in the restaurant at 5:45, so that's pretty good for an early Wednesday night.  My waitress said the wait is long on the weekends.  The way to handle the overflow has been solved by Sousa adding a cocktail lounge upstairs called Harvard and Highland (the intersection of the restaurant).  It focused on handmade cocktails with fresh ingredients and house made bitters, similar to the exceptional cocktails at Salt.  Wish I had sometime to pop up for one before the meeting, but maybe DB~ and I can check it out.

Between Salt, Union Pig and Chicken, Station Street Hotdogs, Harvard and Highland, and his under-development restaurant in Braddock called Magarac, I'm getting concerned that Sousa is going to stretch himself too thin and the quality is going to suffer.  I could see Station Street going first by being sold off, if that were the case.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lemon Pepper Shrimp with Cilantro

Last week at Giant Eagle, I bought some colossal size fresh shrimp.  I don't usually buy colossal-grade shrimp because they are typically imported from Thailand or Bangladesh or some other Asian country where they are farmed en masse.  But these shrimp were caught wild in the good ol' U.S. of A and had a count of 10-15 per pound.  I got 1 pound for the missus and I.

I wanted to do a grand presentation of some sort for these gigantors, so I looked through my spice cabinet to try something different.  I have a whole set of spices from Penzey's that are just as much decoration for the  top shelf of the spice cabinet as they are used.  The lemon pepper spice caught my eye.  I thought that adding some fresh cilantro to an olive oil-based marinade would work well.

I chopped up some cilantro, added it to some olive oil, chopped 2 garlic cloves, and added the lemon pepper to a bowl.  After a good mix, I spooned this into a Ziploc bag and added the peeled/de-veined shrimp.  After a quick shake, I let them marinade for 30 minutes.

While that was going on, I washed some dandelion greens and put them in some low boiling salted water to wilt them down for about 10 minutes, in order to get some of the bitterness out of them.  Yes, I bought something that earlier in the summer I could have picked out of my yard and now I'm serving dandelion greens to my wife.  After they wilted, I sauteed some olive oil in a skillet with some additional garlic.  I added the wilted greens to the pan and sprinkled some salt and pepper on top.

I put the shrimp and the marinade into a skillet and cooked them on each side for 2 minutes.  The dandelions were plated on a diagonal with the shrimp placed on the same diagonal line.  I roasted some kale as an additional vegetable and also prepared some blackeyed peas sprinkled with cumin and tabasco sauce drops.

The shrimp were meaty and substantial.  It will be hard to go back to the typical 31-40 count shrimp at the seafood counter.