Monthly Archives: July 2013

I Love the Dough

Everyone loves pretzels, in some form or another.  Okay, not everyone, but almost everyone.  There are soft pretzels, best served warm with a little mustard on the side (yellow, not spicy brown; spicy brown mustard is gross).  There are the pretzel rods you used to get at the pediatrician’s office, twists, nuggets, and on and on.  I’m not even sure that the hard versions can go stale; they’re already pretty close to it when you buy them.  They’re pretty much perfect.

Pretzels are made of dough, so theoretically, they might be made from a specific kind of dough, or at the very least dough that is treated a certain way.  I am not a baker, nor am I a pretzel expert, so I don’t know.

Anyway, after nearly three decades of thinking that pretzels were just pretzels, two products have emerged in the last month or so that have the potential to shake the very foundation of my belief system.  Wendy’s has a “Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger,” which, on the surface, sounds like it’s perfection perfected.  I’ve also seen commercials for Sonic’s “Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog.”  I don’t even know, but I’m listening, Sonic.

Wendy’s gives you a burger, cheese, bacon, honey mustard sauce, lettuce, and tomato on a “warm, soft pretzel bun.”  Sonic offers one of its standard hot dogs with cheese sauce, bacon, and grilled onions on a “brand new soft pretzel bun.”  I always assumed that every bun they gave you was made brand new, so I’m guessing “brand new” means they’ve never offered this before.

I couldn’t even wrap my head around what a “soft pretzel bun” would be.  Like, soft pretzels are hard on the outside, and they’re shaped in a decidedly non-bun-like fashion.  As I’ve mentioned before, we have a Wendy’s across the street from work, so the last time we went, I dove headfirst into the proverbial deep end and ordered the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger.  Sans tomato, of course (that is a whole other post in and of itself).

I unwrapped the sandwich, and much to my disappointment, the lettuce was more like salad greens.  I like salad as much as the next guy, but my salads always have two things: 1) Caesar dressing, and 2) crispy, crunchy lettuce.  None of these dark, leafy greens.  Not having it.

I picked up the burger, and they were right, the bun was warm.  But do you know what it wasn’t?  A PRETZEL.  IT DID NOT RESEMBLE A PRETZEL IN ANY WAY.  Do you know what it did resemble?  I’ll tell you: IT TASTED LIKE A REGULAR WENDY’S BUN.

What a disappointment.  I understand that the consistency of a soft pretzel is not conducive to housing beef, cheese, and bacon, but at the same time, everything on Earth is conducive to housing beef, cheese, and bacon.  This is one of the biggest culinary letdowns since…well, probably since that time I used the word “culinary” to describe something at Wendy’s.

The real losers here?  Sonic.  They came out with their own “pretzel bun” product right after the guys that screwed up their pretzel bun product.

But Sonic, despite my trepidation, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt (someday, probably, maybe, we’ll see).  Please don’t let me – and America – down.

Waiting For Us to Make a Move

I’m not just a fan of my favorite teams, I’m also just a sports fan in general.  Like, for instance, I am a baseball fan, which means that I keep up on what’s going on, who’s hurt, who’s playing well, and all that stuff.  True, part of that is because of fantasy baseball, but fantasy ends in September and I still watch the playoffs pretty much every night because I really do care.

For the past half decade-plus the Phillies have been movers and shakers around the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.  For most of that stretch, they’ve been buyers, improving the team for the pennant chase.  It worked, as they won five straight division titles, two league championships, and a World Series.

Last season, they were sellers, sending outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence to the West Coast for prospects.  This season, the Phillies went into the All-Star Break on an uptick, getting back to .500 and within seven games of the division-leading Braves.  After a win in the first game after the break, an eight-game losing streak seems to have put the “for sale” sign on the lawn at Citizens Bank Park.

I always hate to see one of my teams throw in the towel, but I understand that sometimes you have to jettison veterans and shed salary to bring in younger talent.  It’s how sports work.  That being said, I don’t want to see the Phillies trade Cliff Lee; their best chance to be good in 2014 is by having Lee and Cole Hamels at the front of their starting rotation along with rumored signing Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and maybe even a rejuvenated, something-to-prove Roy Halladay.

And as I’ve said to anyone who asked, and a number of people who haven’t, trading Chase Utley would be like trading the Phillie Phanatic, except more people would be upset.

There are two guys, however, that I wouldn’t mind seeing in a different uniform tomorrow night: Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young.

Blasting the Phillies for signing Papelbon to a big contract has been en vogue in Philadelphia since like four seconds after they announced it.  I wasn’t among the chorus of boos and “huh?”s.  The dude has been a fairly lights-out reliever for a long time, and while $13 million in today’s game is probably too much…okay, it’s definitely way too much…for a guy who pitches, on average, at best, every other day, I understand that 1) the Phillies have money, and 2) you have to pay top dollar for top talent.

He’s been pretty good over the last season and a half, despite blowing four straight saves last month.  But while a $13 million-a-year closer may be an important piece of a championship club, it’s a luxury for a team that went 81-81 last year and may have to do some work to get there this year.

Take that, and Papelbon’s recent comments that he “definitely didn’t come here for this,” and it’s like, all right, buddy, we get it, you want to win.  Thanks for your time, good luck and godspeed.  Then again, the fact that Papelbon is making $13 million a year to throw 60-70 innings might make that deal a little tougher to complete.

(Are you kidding me?  Do you think the other guys “came here for this,” either?  No one should ever throw his team under the bus like that, but especially not a guy who pitches one inning, like I said, maybe every other day.  Dude.  Shut up.  Seriously.)

Young, on the other hand, has seemed fairly professional in his time here.  With the Texas Rangers, he held “10 and five” rights – meaning he had 10 years of major league service, and had spent the last five years with the same team – but the Phillies gave him a full no-trade clause in order to facilitate his acquisition during the offseason.

There is no such thing as a no-trade clause, really; guys waive them all the time to move to a better situation.  Young, however, has apparently said he will waive his rights only for a trade back to Texas, where his family lives.  That’s understandable; his family is important to him, and he spent all but the past four months of his career there.  He is their all-time leader in almost every offensive category, and is arguably the greatest player in franchise history.

What’s not understandable is why anyone – Young, the Phillies, or anyone with knowledge of his “demand” – let the news out.  Why would the Rangers give up anything of value when they hold literally every single drop of leverage in this situation?  Everyone should have kept their mouths shut for 24 more hours so that the general managers could make a reasonable deal instead of forcing the Phillies to accept a mediocre minor league bat – quite possibly just an actual, maple, Louisville Slugger bat – and a small bit of salary relief in exchange for their one easily tradeable asset.

(Now Young has apparently modified his stance and may agree to different destinations, one at a time.  Okay.  Great.  Thanks.  Bye.)

This time tomorrow, Cody Asche will be the Phillies’ starting third baseman for the rest of 2013.  Antonio Bastardo or Justin De Fratus may be their nominal closer.  Regardless, if Michael Young is in a Phillies uniform – and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Papelbon – we’ll have to wonder if it was an opportunity lost.

We won’t have our answer until the Phillies put the “help wanted” or “for sale” sign on the lawn at next year’s trade deadline.

So Fresh and So Clean

I just saw a commercial for “Mr. Clean” that shows Mr. Clean at various points throughout his life.  You can click here to watch it.

I have some thoughts, because of course I do.

First of all, call me old-fashioned, or crazy, or both, but seeing animated characters mixed in with real live people still weirds me out a little bit.  Just a little, but enough that after a few minutes I’m like, “okay, can we…not?”

(“But Roger Rabbit!” you say.  I guess.  But that’s clearly a cartoon.  I’m talking these really lifelike, “hey wait a minute, is that dude real?  Yeah, that’s definitely a real – oh wait, what?!?”-type animated characters.)

Second of all, Mr. Clean clearly has a medical condition; he hasn’t had a single hair on his head for his entire life, and the eyebrows he does have have always been white.  So we’ve turned a guy who is both an albino and has alopecia into a symbol for cleanliness.  Did he have a choice in this?  Look at that little boy cleaning his window; did he pick that up because he loved the view, or because all the other kids made fun of him so he spent a lot of time in his room?

Seeing that commercial, I feel bad for Mr. Clean.  Not bad enough to buy his products, but still.  Poor guy.

(Look, it’s late.  These are the things that come to mind and then don’t leave for a really long time.)

Fuel

Never Did We Know What the Future Would Hold

I do a reasonably good job of keeping up with what’s current in the music world, but if you look at my iPod, the majority of the content is from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and the most common genre on there is what was known, at least at one point, as “modern rock.”

When I was young, I had always just listened to whatever my dad had in his collection, which was and still is a pretty gigantic selection.  His favorite band was Genesis, and his favorite singer Phil Collins, so my favorite artists were Genesis and Phil Collins.  I knew pretty much every word of every song they put out between 1980 and 1995.

As I hit middle school, I started listening to the radio and hearing more modern songs.  I remember going into the music section of department stores with my dad and thinking that I might soon buy a tape of my own.  I know, right?  Cassette tapes!  The one I had my eye on, incidentally, was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis (like everyone else, I knew “Champagne Supernova” and “Wonderwall”), but I never pulled the trigger.  In fact, I wouldn’t own the album until I went to England in the summer of 2000, nearly five years after its release.

Instead, it was Cracked Rear View by Hootie and the Blowfish.  I played the tape to death.  I mean that literally: one day it stopped working and got all twisted up and ripped inside the stereo.

My sister had a CD player before I did, so I bought the CD and made myself a cassette copy for my walkman, but owning the disc eventually led to me getting a player of my own.  With that came a need for new CDs, so I would occasionally flip through my dad’s record club (remember them?) catalog to see if there was a deal on something from someone I had heard on the radio.

For some reason, this was a big deal to me.  I had to make the right choices.  I mean, buying an entire album on the back of hearing just one or two songs seemed like a stretch, and in retrospect, I must not have been alone, because now we have iTunes for the exact purpose of purchasing songs piecemeal.

Finally, I had my two choices, and they were winners.  The more popular one, having sold over 15 million copies to date, was Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox Twenty.  It’s a great album, and helped launch the band to incredible heights in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The other choice became one of my favorite albums I’ve ever bought: Fuel’s Sunburn.  The track “Shimmer” went on to reach number two on the Modern Rock charts, and was one of the most-played songs on Modern Rock radio in 1998.  The band followed up the album with Something Like Human in 2000; the lead single, “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” spent 12 weeks at the top of the charts.

After another release in 2003, lead singer Brett Scallions left the band.  Scallions had a very distinct, kind of nasally sound, and without him, I couldn’t imagine there being a Fuel at all.  They offered the lead singer’s job to Chris Daughtry of American Idol, but he declined, so they found another guy who spelled his name “Toryn” and released an album in 2007.  I didn’t hear a single track from it, let alone buy it.  After that, as far as I was concerned, Fuel was done.

Which made sense, really.  I know that bands can swap out drummers (Oasis went through like four of them, not counting temporary tour replacements) or guitarists or bassists and it’s no big deal, but the voice of the lead singer is pretty much the calling card of a band.  Sure, there are some people who care more about the music than the lyrics, but for most of us, we identify an artist by their voice, and other than Van Halen, I can’t think of another group that changed singers and maintained its popularity or relevance.  When you change singers, you become a different band.

About a week and a half ago a friend of mine told me about a free concert he wanted to attend.  Another one of our friends was going to go, and his buddy was coming as well.  Free concert, free parking, friends, ::cough::drinks::cough::, fun…why not?  The performers almost didn’t matter, but the lineup was two bands: Alien Ant Farm and Fuel.

Fuel?!?  Apparently they were still together.  I had no idea, and I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the venue.  I hoped they would play the old stuff, even though I knew it wouldn’t sound the same.  I wasn’t familiar with any of their music after their third album, but instead of researching it in advance, I decided to just show up, listen, and hope for the best.

Alien Ant Farm played first.  Good.  Fuel started in Tennessee, but they moved to Eastern Pennsylvania before they hit it big, and the Philadelphia area helped propel them to the national stage, so it was almost a homecoming of sorts.  You’re darn tootin’ they’re headlining!

Most of the audience knew exactly two Alien Ant Farm songs.  They played their first two songs (the singer was doing a lot of that on-stage convulsing that a lot of hard rock/post-grunge “nu-metal” singers do, even though they weren’t exactly thrashing around up there) to a fairly disinterested audience, but when they started playing their familiar track “Movies,” a bunch of arms went up in the air and people started singing and dancing.

I lost interest in their set after that, chatting with my friends and enjoying the newly-discovered Redd’s Apple Ale(s) in my hand.  Two members of our group liked the band, so they enjoyed it, but it was apparent that most of the people there, myself included, were more interested in Fuel.  That did not stop any of us from enjoying their last song, their well-known cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

About a half hour later, amid a few scattered rain drops that never amounted to anything more than, well, a few scattered rain drops, Fuel took the stage.  They opened with the first track from their second album, “Last Time.”  The singer sounded familiar, like really familiar, so I did a little research on my phone to confirm my suspicions: Scallions had returned to the band in 2011.  Fuel was back!

As the set went on, and every song came from the 1998-2003 era, I was transported back into high school.  Sixteen-year-old Joe called; his head exploded.  They put on a really good show, and I knew every word.  The crowd sang along to a number of songs, not just “Shimmer,” which Scallions pointed out and thanked the crowd for.  “You guys were on this s— back in 1995!” he said.  Not all of us, but you’re welcome.

They closed with “Hemorrhage,” and when it was over I was practically giddy.  I felt stupid about it; this was a band I listened to a decade and a half ago, and they’re by no means legends, but I was so surprised that the real singer was back that it made the experience 10 times better.  There are few good surprises in life, and when one came along, however small, I was really happy to enjoy it.

(After the fact, I did a little more reading.  Apparently Scallions is the only original member of the band who is in this incarnation of Fuel.  The group was essentially dormant for a few years before Scallions and bassist Jeff Abercrombie kicked around the idea of linking up as “Re-Fueled” and touring again.  Thank God that name didn’t stick.  Guitarist and songwriter Carl Bell was not part of the process, and after Abercrombie decided against going out on tour, Scallions recruited new guys and forged ahead.  They should have a new album out by the end of the year.  You didn’t ask, but you’re welcome anyway.)

We spent the rest of the night at the bar before going for late-night cheesesteaks, because this is Philadelphia and that is what you do.  It was the perfect ending to what unexpectedly turned into a great night.

As someone whose youth gets further away every day, I can’t accurately describe the feeling of recapturing a portion of it, even for just a couple hours, while still being reasonably grown up about it.  Some people try to stave off adulthood by going out and getting drunk every weekend until they end up in jail.  Some continue to skateboard into their 40s.

For us, we did it by enjoying good company, good music, and a good time.  And I’ll take that combination any day of the week.

Relax, Don’t Do It

The Phillies are in a tailspin.  The Sixers are in the toilet.  The Flyers missed the playoffs.  The Eagles have a new coach and low expectations.

Philadelphia sports are in a rut.  Which means Philadelphia sports fans are being their – our?  No, their – typical bellyaching selves.

I have never been a part of this.  I love the Phillies as much as anyone, but you won’t see me taking to the comments section of every article on the team to whine and complain about how this guy should be traded or this guy should be released or this guy should be fired.  I’m all for fans caring about teams and having opinions, but it’s gotten pretty ridiculous around here lately.

Less than five years ago, the Phillies won the World Series.  Less than four years ago, they won their second straight National League pennant.  You’d think that would buy them some goodwill.  Ha!  In this town, you are only as good as your last homestand.

A couple years back, Jimmy Rollins called Philadelphia fans frontrunners.  He was roundly criticized for it, but the truth is he’s right.  Despite all the good times they’ve given us over the last half-decade, they stopped selling out as soon as their record dipped below .500.

I thought of this after reading that Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin has a torn ACL and will miss the season.  Oh no.  The sky is falling on us again; let’s go write a diatribe against something or other on an internet message board!  Message board trolls are the worst.  Just the worst.

Next time you think about acting like you know more about how to run a baseball team than the general manager, do me a favor: stop.  Get up from the computer.  Walk away.  Go see what the sun looks like or something.

Just get a life.  And let the rest of us suffer in peace.

Whatever Happened to Predictability?

I was watching this week’s episode of Franklin & Bash (I feel like I mention Franklin & Bash more than anyone else on the internet…I don’t know what this means) and was reminded that I really like the theme song from the show.  It’s an actual song; not about lawyers and comedy and such, but just an actual song that was used for the opening credits.

(It’s called “Mixture” by a duo that goes by the name Pete.  Just so you know.)

After it was over, one of the 39 nightly Friends reruns was on.  Now there’s a show with an iconic theme song.  Again, it existed before the show, but “I’ll Be There For You” is synonymous with the show, and they’re almost inextricably linked forever more.  Not to disparage any career they had before or since, but most people have only heard of The Rembrandts because of that song.

It got me to thinking…are there any current shows with iconic themes written just for that show?  The most recent show I can think of (that also airs in frequent nightly reruns) with a show-based theme is The King of Queens, but other than that, I feel like shows just use recognizable songs or instrumentals.  Craig Ferguson wrote and sings the theme song for The Late Late Show, which is cute and all, but as far as I’m concerned the conversation about late night themes begins and ends with Late Night with Conan O’Brien, so as much as I love Craig, I’m not counting it.

Back in the day, shows always had specific theme songs.  I Love Lucy had “I Love Lucy.”  Cheers had “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”  All of the old “TGIF” series on ABC – most notably Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step, and the best of all, Perfect Strangers – had theme songs.  I still pull up the Perfect Strangers theme on YouTube every now and then.

There are only a few shows that I watch pretty regularly, so I could be way off, but I don’t think so.  Feel free to share any current examples that I missed.  Maybe I’ll do a “these are my favorite themes of all time” post, if you’re lucky.

EPILOGUE: I wanted to verify what I said about “I’ll Be There For You” existing before Friends.  I was pretty sure, but I went down the Wikipedia wormhole to confirm.  Turns out, I was wrong.  It was written by The Rembrandts along with a few other people, including the producers of the show, David Crane and Marta Kauffman.  It also turns out that they both grew up in the Philadelphia area.  Huh!  The original song was just a minute long, but when the show blew up, The Rembrandts went in and added another verse and turned it into a radio hit.

The original choice for the theme song for Friends?  “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M.  I did not know that.

EPI-EPILOGUE: Lisa Kudrow, one of the stars of Friends, is a guest on The Late Late Show tonight.  I DID THAT WITH MY MIND.

It’s Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away

Every year, a group of people in the area who do the same kind of job I do get together for a bowling outing.  We get together more frequently to have a drink and discuss the business of the day (how cool does that sound, “the business of the day?”), but the bowling outing is an annual thing that, for obvious reasons, I make sure not to miss.

Over the past few years, I would say that eight of the top 10 individual scores have been mine.  I don’t get too much of a hard time about it; they know I’m in a league and have been doing it for half my life.  I liken it to playing in a golf outing; there are always people who haven’t touched a golf club since last year’s event, and there are always people who play every other weekend.  The disparity in skill levels just happens.

I also try to go out of my way not to try too hard, but I’m too competitive, so I usually end up doing reasonably well and then trying to be all “oh well you know I have an unfair advantage, I do this all the time, you guys are doing great” about it.

It’s a weird dichotomy for me.  I can go to an outing like this, or out with friends, and have a couple of bad games and still crush everyone.  They ask what my average is (they always ask what my average is), and when I tell them, they’re impressed.  But when I go to my league night, I’m not even in the top half of the league, so I’m not really that good, you know?

Anyway, this year’s outing was today, but I didn’t bowl.  It’s time for a new champion, I told them.  The truth is, I just didn’t feel like it.  I barely even like bowling anymore, and I took the summer off to just get away from it, so I haven’t even looked at my bowling bag since early May.

I’ve actually felt that way the last couple years; I’m just burned out on it.  I’m not quitting the one league I’m still in because I’ve been a part of it for 12 years and I love those guys.  But a few years ago I was in three leagues, then two, and now just one.

I told the organizer that I wouldn’t bowl, but I would come by to hang out and have a few drinks afterward.  I purposely arrived fairly late because I expected to regret my decision not to bowl the second I got there.  Watching other people bowl has never really been fun for me, and I knew my competitive juices would be flowing as soon as I saw the scores being posted.

I walked in in the middle of the second and final game.  As people were missing easy spares and getting super-excited for strikes, I anticipated that the internal second-guessing would begin rather quickly.    A couple guys ended up shooting in the 140s; one guy hit 150.

I felt nothing.

It was actually a bit of a shock.  Here’s something that I’ve been doing since I was 14, and I didn’t care that I wasn’t doing it.  I know this sounds stupid, since it’s just a game, but I really didn’t know what to think about that.  I still don’t.

The league season will start up again the week after Labor Day.  We’ll meet the week before, and I’ll give my treasurer’s speech about how much things will cost and how some teams need to do a better job of getting their money in.  This will be my fourth year in the position, so it’s old hat by now.

We’ll draw random team numbers for scheduling purposes, and we’ll learn who we’re facing the following week.  We’ll all be tied for first place again, and I will no doubt look at the schedule and think, “if we get off to a good start, this could be our year” for the eighth straight season, even though it’s never been our year.

The optimism of opening night will surely recharge the batteries, and in two months’ time, I’ll probably go back and read this post and think, how could that have happened?  How could you not miss this?

But for now, I don’t.  And as someone who hates change – fears it, probably – the thought of not giving a crap anymore is a pretty sobering one.

That’s Not What I Meant to Say

Technology is grand and all, but sometimes it goes too far.

Autocorrect, for instance.

On the surface, it’s a good function.  It’s programmed to know that when someone is writing a certain string of characters in a row, they’re probably going to write a certain word, so it helps save time by finishing the word.

I’m not the first person to point out the vagaries of autocorrect; there are websites devoted to some of the more humorous and unfortunate instances that users have submitted.  And I will admit, sometimes the results are pretty funny and kickstart a conversation on their own.

The problem I have with it is that the thing is too smart for its own good.  Tonight I responded to a text that someone sent about a suggestion for a quizzo team name.  I then wanted to add another option, so I started to type out “or,” as if to say, “or we could go with blahblahblah.”

I typed the “o” and everything was fine.  I tapped the “r” and then hit space, and suddenly my message began with the word “in.”  Does no one ever start messages with the word “or?”  I do this all the time; am I the only one?

I seriously doubt it.  Why is my phone trying to correct something that isn’t wrong?  And then I don’t even get the satisfaction of proving that it’s wrong because it’s just a stupid phone and it sits there silently while I yell at it.

So, to Apple and Google and whoever else makes operating systems for phones: I get it.  I do.  But I shouldn’t have to write an English word three times just because you don’t think it’s the one I want to use.

Trust me.  I know plenty of words.  I have a blog for Pete’s sake.

The Needle and the Damage Done

The final phase of baseball’s “Biogenesis” scandal began yesterday as MLB announced that Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2011 National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun would be suspended for the remainder of the regular season and the entire postseason.  With the Brewers out of contention, the unpaid suspension amounts to 65 games.

In the interest of full disclosure, while he’s been a great player – in light of all of this, though, let’s just say he’s put up good numbers – I’ve never liked Braun.  Just something about him has rubbed me the wrong way for a long time.  Then, in 2011, he failed a drug test, with the news leaking out barely a month after he was named the NL MVP.  Braun fought the result, eventually succeeding in having his test, and imminent suspension, overturned on appeal.  The grounds of the appeal were that the collector kept Braun’s sample in his home improperly, not shipping it to the testing center until the next day.

I’m a big fan of due process and following the rules, so if the proper procedures weren’t followed, even if there was no malice behind it, I agree that the accused must be acquitted.  But when Braun held a press conference in February of 2012 at the Brewers’ spring training facility and declared that he was proved innocent, I had an Inigo Montoya, “I do not think the word means what you think it means” moment.  See, “innocent” is not the same as “not guilty.”  When you get off on a technicality, you are not innocent; you are merely found not guilty, or your charges are dismissed.  It is a finding, not necessarily a fact, Ryan.

As someone who knows the difference between the two, Braun’s arrogant announcement obviously didn’t sit well with me.  I wasn’t alone, though, as stories have emerged since then about players showing their distaste with Braun escaping punishment.  The attitude of players has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years, and the Braun case has been a prime example of that.  If this happened 20 years ago, there wouldn’t have even been a test, let alone an appeal of a positive results.  Now, other players resent Braun for dodging a suspension because they know it’s in their best interests to clean up the game.

There is some complaint on The Internet over MLB’s dogged pursuit of Braun and the other players associated with Biogenesis.  “By chasing these players down and making an example, they’re just shining a brighter light on steroids and PED use,” they say.  Um, yeah.  Shame is still a very effective deterrent in our society, and as it’s become clear that the players as a whole don’t want drugs in the game anymore, what do you want MLB to do?  Someday, PEDs may be a thing of the past, mainly because MLB has started levying penalties against proven users.

The key phrase there, though, is “proven users.”  There are no positive drug tests associated with Biogenesis, just the testimony and records of clinic founder Tony Bosch.  Apparently, there is plenty of evidence, because when faced with a lengthy suspension, Braun folded.  He didn’t fight it, he just said, “hey, oops, my bad guys, sorry to those of you I may have let down.”  “May.”  He said “may.”  Yeah, and I “may” have written way too many words yesterday.

Baseball’s Basic Agreement (the collective bargaining agreement known as the CBA) between MLB and the Players’ Union calls for a 50-game suspension for a first positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, a 100-game suspension for a second positive test, and a lifetime ban for a third.  There is nothing in there about guidelines for a “well, we have canceled checks” suspension.  However, the Commissioner holds the power to levy punishments when such action is in the “best interests of baseball.”

Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life in 1989 after an investigation showed evidence that he gambled on baseball.  The eight players associated with the “Black Sox” gambling scandal in 1919 were banned for life as well.  The Commissioner can hand out pretty much whatever penalty he wants and leave it up to an arbitrator to decide if it’s too harsh.

And that’s surely what Bud Selig did here.  MLB has reportedly pursued 100-game bans for the players associated with Biogenesis, claiming that being associated with the clinic and lying about it are two separate crimes.  That’s a specious argument, but the “best interests of baseball” clause renders that moot.

The only question is if severely punishing drug users and liars is in the best interests of the game.  I believe it is, and clearly Selig does as well.  He has faced criticism for allowing steroid use to run rampant on his watch, and many claim he’s now overcompensating for that by rooting out and ruthlessly punishing violators, trying to alter his legacy before he retires in 2014.  That’s fine by me; sure, it would have been better to start 20 year ago, but better late than never.

One last thought: Alex Rodriguez is the biggest name associated with the Biogenesis clinic.  Reports indicate that he won’t accept a deal and will go through the appeals process, which (theoretically) means that we won’t know his punishment until much later, possibly after the season.

You probably didn’t hear it here first, but maybe you have: once his punishment comes down, despite just having one positive drug test on his record back in 2003, Alex Rodriguez will never play another professional baseball game for the rest of his life.

I could be wrong, but the precedent set with Ryan Braun’s case shows that players who cheat and then lie about it will be punished under the auspices of the “best interests of baseball” clause, not the code outlined in the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.  Braun cheated and then brazenly lied about it.  Rodriguez admitted to using steroids a decade ago, defied the orders of the Commissioner’s Office in regards to his associates, and has reportedly lied and obstructed MLB’s investigation throughout the Biogenesis ordeal.  Bud Selig will no doubt want to bring the hammer down on Rodriguez, not just for breaking the rules, but because of the arrogant belief that he is bigger than the game and that the rules don’t apply to him that his alleged conduct has displayed.

I wonder, though, if there will be the same kind of consternation on the aforementioned Internet that there is with Braun’s situation.  Braun isn’t widely loved, but Rodriguez is pretty universally reviled.  And since everyone hates A-Rod, it’s no doubt going to be all right to kick him out.

Right?

We’ll see soon enough.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

Five weeks ago at the legendary Merion Golf Club, golfer Phil Mickelson led the U.S. Open after three rounds.  Mickelson had won four previous major tournaments in his career, but had five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open without a win.  At 1-under after 54 holes, Mickelson was the only player under par.  Unfortunately for Lefty, he didn’t stay there, shooting 4-over on Sunday as Justin Rose shot even-par to finish 1-over and win by two strokes.  Mickelson was heartbroken at having come so close once again, only to lose on the final holes.  As a fan favorite, it seemed like golf fans everywhere felt his pain, wondering if he’d ever break through at the U.S. Open.

Yesterday, Mickelson began the final round of the Open Championship at Muirfield tied for ninth, five strokes back at 2-over par.  He played the round of his life, shooting a 66 to finish 3-under and win by three strokes.

He was the only player under par.

* * *

Despite what you just read, this post isn’t really about Phil Mickelson.  Five weeks ago, I promised a long post about my weekend.  I never wrote it, simply because I was too tired for a couple days, and then after the fact, I didn’t really know what to write.  In light of Mickelson’s win, however, I decided to just go and do it anyway.

Every year, the U.S. Open is traditionally the toughest golf tournament in the world.  As one of golf’s four major championships, it’s kind of a big deal.  Merion Golf Club, located just outside of Philadelphia, has a long and storied history in the game of golf, but hadn’t hosted an Open since 1981.  The tournament has moved to bigger courses, both in playing length, and spectator space.  Merion allowed roughly half the number of spectators that the Olympic Club had in 2012.  Despite that, the USGA brought its premier event back to Merion in a nod to the course’s tradition and history.

Merion Golf Club is also a 15-minute drive from where I live.  And on that final Sunday of the U.S. Open, I was one of those spectators.

With the exception of the time I spent in Washington during college, I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life.  Philadelphia has always had something of an inferiority complex, both athletically and in the context of where it stands in the hierarchy of America’s cities.  Just a couple hours south of the nation’s financial capital and a few hours north of its actual capital, Philadelphia has been relegated to second-class consideration, despite being the cradle of a fledgling nation in the 1770s.

All of that is to say that when the USGA announced that the Open would come back to Merion, it was a big deal.  A really big deal.  I took up golf when I was in high school, and since then, I’ve improved greatly (despite being a terrible golfer, I’m much better than I was).  I never really watched much golf, but after I started playing, I started watching, because sometimes I find it hard to believe that what I’m doing is technically the same thing that the guys on television are doing.

Along the same lines, Merion’s East Course opened in 1912 and was designed by Hugh Wilson.  Wilson also designed The Olde Course at Cobbs Creek Golf Club, which is where I play an overwhelming majority of my golf (it’s a public course and trust me, it’s not as high-falutin’ as it may sound).  Just four miles from Merion, the creek that the broadcasters were talking about during the Open is the same creek that runs through my home course.  Some of the design elements were very similar as well, so I like to think that I essentially play Merion pretty much every other weekend.

Last June, one of my coworkers, a USGA member, forwarded those of us in the office an email about purchasing tickets for this year’s tournament.  I bought a pair of grounds passes for the last practice day, as did others in the office.  I also sent out texts to a few of my golfing buddies asking if they wanted to get tickets for one of the championship days, and they all replied with emphatic and near-immediate yeses.  The prices escalated as the weekend went on; Thursday tickets were $40, and tickets for Sunday were $125.  My follow-up message asked what day everyone wanted to attend; I knew it would be expensive, but I hoped they would want to shell out the extra money and go on Sunday.

Within five minutes, I had my answers, and within 10 minutes, I had placed my order.  Three hundred and sixty eight days later, we would be in attendance at the historic Merion Golf Club for the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open.

I was legitimately stoked in the weeks leading up to the tournament, and in the end, it didn’t disappoint.  It turned out to be possibly the second-best sporting event I’ve ever seen live (sometime later in the year I will write about the first).  It was such a great experience, and I had so much to talk about when I got home, but there was no real cohesion to it (hence my initial difficulty in writing about it), so I’ll just share some anecdotes.

• I knew Merion was close, but I didn’t know how close, so a week before the tournament, I decided to drive by the course.  The East Course lies on two sides of a road that, while I wouldn’t call it a major thoroughfare, is still a reasonably well-traveled avenue.  I did a little Google Mapping, and after work, I drove over.  The course is literally two traffic lights up the road from where I bowl every week.  I had no idea.

• I went to the practice session on Wednesday after spending the morning at work.  I had a good time with the people I went with, but we didn’t see a ton of golf.  I ran into a few people I know, though, which, if you think about the limited number of tickets available (25,000 per day), is either surprising or not.  I really don’t know.

• Come Sunday morning, we hopped on the train (there was a stop right near the course, and considering how rain earlier in the week had essentially washed out one of the off-site lots, it could not possibly have been more convenient) and arrived at the course around 8:45.  We were a group of four, and we started walking around some of the holes, looking for a place to camp for a while.  We soon reached a dead end.  This was the end of my period as group navigator.

• This seems as good a time as any to mention that because some of my friends and I cannot say no to the idea of prediction contests and pick ’ems, of course we set up a pick ’em for the U.S. Open.  I had Justin Rose on my team, and thanks to the collapses of everyone on someone else’s squad, I won.  We ended up doing one for last week’s Open Championship as well, where my four competitors (including Rose) all missed the cut.  Of course.

• We started making our way towards the third green.  It had a grandstand, and is a par-3, so we figured we would see all sorts of golfing – tee shots, bunker shots, chips, long putts, short putts, everything.  On the way, we saw a group tee off on the second hole that featured English golfer Simon Khan.  You always hear people yelling stuff when guys tee off, and I kind of halfheartedly wanted to come up with something funny that people might hear on television.  I had recently seen the new Star Trek movie, so when I saw Khan’s name, I suggested we pull a William Shatner and yell “KHAAAAAAAAN!!” after he teed off.  Everyone laughed, agreeing it was a good idea.  Khan stepped to the tee, wound up, and hit his ball.

Nothing.  We clammed up.  Well, I clammed up, since there still weren’t very many spectators there on the second tee at that time of the morning, and I figured I would have looked and felt stupid.  As for the other guys in my group, I don’t think they would have done it anyway.  In the end, we kept saying “KHAAAAAAAN!!” throughout the day, generally in response to a poor shot.  You know, because we’re so good ourselves.

• The third hole ended up being a bit controversial because of the way it was set up.  Despite being a par-3, it was playing close to 250 yards, which means players had to take woods instead of irons to reach the green.  That meant a reduction in loft, which meant that balls came in low and fast, often skipping through the green.  Some of the shorter-hitting players came up short, leaving tough, lengthy lag putts to get close to the hole for an attempt at par.  We saw what we expected: a couple birdies, some pars, some bogeys, and all sorts of shots ranging from poor to surprisingly good, considering that the first handful of guys to go through were 20 strokes over par through 56 holes.

• One guy, Shawn Stefani, hit his tee shot just to the left of the green.  As he lined up his chip shot, he stumbled backwards into a bunker.  He didn’t flat-out fall, but his stumble certainly elicited a chuckle from the grandstand.

(We’re not done with Stefani.  Remember that name.)

• As noon was approaching, we decided to take a shot at getting seats in the 17th grandstand or near the 18th green.  We made our way towards 18, which was right next to the first tee.  As we crossed the first fairway, someone pointed out that Tiger Woods would be teeing off three groups later.  We weren’t going to follow Tiger like a lot of people were, but at this point, there wasn’t an unmanageable crowd near the tee.  Say what you want about him and his demeanor and off-the-course life choices, but he is arguably the greatest to ever play the game.  Yes, I wanted to see him up close.  We found a good spot and were able to see the world’s top-ranked player tee off at the U.S. Open.  We later saw him tee off on the 14th hole and finish his round on 18.  Whether you like him or not, it’s pretty cool to be 15 feet away from Tiger freaking Woods.  As someone who cares way too much about sports, I cannot explain how insanely insane that is to me.  Here I am five weeks later and I’m still like, dude, Tiger Woods.

• We spent the next seven and a half hours sitting in our camping chairs about five feet from the rope around the 18th green.  Seriously, when we went over, there was a row of people along the rope and no one behind them.  We were willing to camp, so we got to sit there.  Just incredible.  Plus, the players walked right behind us after teeing off on 14, so we could simply stand up and turn around to watch them go by.  On top of all that, from our seats, you could see the players hitting off of the first tee as well.  Well, you could see their clubs at the top of their swing, but still.  All told, we saw every group.  Some groups (KHAAAAAAAAANNNN!) we saw many, many times.

• I visited the merchandise tent on Wednesday, and ate something of a big breakfast, so I wasn’t really hungry when we hunkered down.  The rest of the group was, and wanted to take a look at the merchandise, so I stayed put and watched guys finish out their rounds while the rest of the group made its way up the 18th fairway and behind the 17th grandstand to visit the souvenir and concession tents.  When they came back, they told me they were walking by the grandstand when they heard a huge roar.  I was 700 yards away, but didn’t hear anything, so I asked what happened.

In 18 USGA championships at Merion, no one had ever carded a hole-in-one.  That changed early that afternoon, and the roar they heard was the crowd reacting to the ball going into the hole.  They rushed over just in time to see someone reaching into the cup to pull out a ball.

That player?  Shawn Stefani.  Less than four hours earlier, he was the guy slipped and fell into a bunker.  Now, he’s the only player to ever get a hole-in-one in a USGA championship at Merion.  Since it happened, people who knew I attended the tournament asked if I saw the guy get the hole-in-one.  I tell them no, but I did see him fall down.  The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

• The biggest shock of the day?  Four guys in their 20s went 12 hours without a cell phone (they were not allowed on the grounds).  Once I got back to my car and turned it back on, I checked out Twitter and saw a lot of people using the hashtag “#MagnaCartaHolyGrail.”  It turned out to be a new album from Jay Z, but at the time, I thought that it might have been what Kim Kardashian and Kanye West named their baby.  Worst of all, my reaction was simply, “eh, sounds about right.”  2013, everybody.

• A number of players tossed golf balls or gloves into the crowd.  One caddie gave away his hat.  I can’t remember every guy who did, nor the guys who didn’t, but I will shout out Bubba Watson.  He finished his round and didn’t toss anything to anyone; he just stood by the side of the green for a minute while his playing partner finished and his caddie got his bag situated.  But then Bubba walked over to the grandstand, and we saw he had a marker and a half dozen balls.  He signed each one and threw it to the crowd (one of my buddies almost got one).  Good on you, Bubba.

• Many of the spectators near us had earpieces that carried the audio broadcast of the tournament, so we were able to keep up with what the leaders were doing while we watched the middle of the pack finish up.  The giant leaderboard helped too.  As the round went on, Rose stayed around 1-over, while Mickelson struggled early.  He eagled the 10th hole to take the lead back, but his now-trademark falter unfolded over the back nine, and we knew it was pretty much going to be Justin Rose’s tournament to lose.  As he was on my fantasy team, this was fine by me.  Rose had also won a PGA event at nearby Aronimink Golf Club three years ago, so I thought it would be cool if he won for a second time in the Philadelphia area.  A new adopted son, if you will, even though he’s English.

The 18th green at Merion Golf Club's East Course.  This photo was taken during a U.S. Open practice round.  I spent a majority of the final round sitting 20 feet to the left of where this photo was taken.

The 18th green at Merion Golf Club’s East Course. This photo was taken during a U.S. Open practice round. I spent a majority of the final round sitting 20 feet to the left of where this photo was taken.

• Rose was in the third-to-last group, but he held a one-shot lead that, with the way Mickelson was playing, seemed insurmountable at the time.  His approach shot on the par-4 18th went just through the green and into the rough.  He responded by chipping out with his 3-wood, putting the ball within a foot of the cup.  No one birdied the hole all day; Rose came closest.

(I tried chipping with a 3-wood recently.  I was in the rough, but a shot with any arc would have hit the tree I was standing under, so I got creative.  I smoked the ball through the green, because of course.)

• Incidentally, Rose made birdies on the 17th and 18th holes to come from behind in his singles match at the 2012 Ryder Cup as Europe stormed back to retain the cup.  His opponent in that match?  Phil Mickelson.  Oof.

• After tapping in for his par, Rose looked up and blew a kiss to the sky, thinking of his late father.  The final round of the U.S. Open takes place on Father’s Day, and stories of golfers and their fathers and/or children are peppered throughout the broadcast every year.  If you didn’t know his story, you might have thought that Rose was jumping the gun a little bit, but in reality, as we stood up to applaud, we knew we were cheering for the champion.

Apropos of nothing, in the following days, I found a photo of Rose looking to the sky, and based on the colors of the faceless blurs in the background, deduced that I am in the photo.

• Mickelson arrived on 18 needing a birdie to tie Rose and force a playoff.  To say that the crowd was behind him would be an understatement.  His second shot ended up 30 yards short of the green, but in today’s game, if there is anyone on the PGA Tour who can hole that shot, it’s Phil Mickelson.  He took his swing and ran after it, almost beating the ball to the green.  It rolled well past the hole, and Mickelson eventually made bogey to finish in a tie for second, two strokes behind, but you would never know it from how the crowd reacted.  Everyone there, even those of us who had a vested interest in Rose, were rooting for Phil when the day started.  We all shared his pain when he missed out, earning his sixth silver medal.  When Jason Day accepted second place honors during the post-round ceremony, but Mickelson didn’t, not a single soul in attendance could blame him.

Oh, and did I mention it was his birthday?  It was his birthday.  Double oof.

• I had never attended a golf tournament before, and sitting by the 18th green for the final round of the U.S. Open might ruin any further tournaments for me, but part of what I was looking forward to was seeing a sporting event where I was essentially rooting for everyone.  When you go to a baseball or basketball game, you cheer for your favorite team and you wish ill upon the opponent.  But in a golf tournament, while you have your favorites, you’re just applauding all the players for their effort, and cheering wildly for incredible shots.  I had hoped that the winner would be in the last group, giving us that moment where the champion sinks his final putt and raises his arms in the air as the crowd stands and showers him with applause.  We didn’t get that, but as Rose was finishing, the sense that we were watching the soon-to-be champion have his special moment wasn’t lost on me, and served a similar purpose.

• Having won two of the three professional golf tournaments held near Philadelphia in the last four seasons, Rose made sure to point out how great the galleries were, and how good Philadelphia had been to him.  He knows how to work the Philly crowd, that’s for sure.  And despite the crowd’s affinity for Mickelson, it was nice that they were familiar with Rose and supported him as a guy who had won here before.

And, if I’m being honest, I deserve at least partial credit for the win.  My coworker had volunteered at the AT&T National at Aronimink back in 2010, the year Rose won.  He had extra lanyards from the tournament, and I ended up with one.  One of my buddies brought a few credential holders for us to put our tickets in so they were protected around our necks.  I brought the AT&T National lanyard, slapped it on the plastic sleeve, and put my pass in it.  Eleven hours later, the winner of that tournament won this tournament, and won me my fantasy pick ’em.

Coincidence?  Almost assuredly.  But still.

• In the end, Justin Rose won his first major with a cumulative score of 1-over for four rounds.  He was a more-than-deserving champion, having played steadily all weekend long.  And that’s what you have to do at the U.S. Open: stay out of trouble, keep the ball on the fairway, and make your putts.  I also thought his score was a good sign; usually the Open champ comes in around even par or higher, but because of the lack of length on the course and drenching rains that came through the area three times in the week leading up to the tournament (and on Thursday), some pundits thought some guys might get to double-digits under par, writing the epitaph for Merion as a U.S. Open-quality facility.

That’s not the case anymore.  With the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones locking up the “grand slam” at Merion coming in 2030, what better place to have the U.S. Open than Merion?  Sure, there were fewer fans, and there is less space for corporate tents, but this year’s tournament proved to be both an incredible test of golf for the best players in the world, and worth the logistical issues faced by the USGA and the surrounding communities.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend for the Philadelphia area, and an amazing day for me and my friends.  If you’ve read even a random smattering of my posts, you know my affinity for sports, so it should come as no surprise that 1) of course I had a great time, and 2) this post is almost 3,600 words.  Thanks for sticking it out.

Looking up the 18th Fairway towards the green at Merion Golf Club's East Course.

Looking up the 18th Fairway towards the green at Merion Golf Club’s East Course.