Sunday, May 30, 2010

300 Yards to Paradise

We're probably the smallest domicile in the entire park.  For us, it's a temporary home, but for many here at Country Acres Campground, nestled between Ravenna and Newton Falls, their RV's resemble palatial estates.  Some of the "permanent" residences are nicer than  most homes in our neighborhood.  Our little Fleetwood Sea Pine pop-up camper looks like one of those little bungalows or store-fronts situated next to corporate office towers, whose owners fight eminent domain.  It's Memorial Day weekend, and the park is crowded.  Donna's nephew Richie and his family are in the spot next to ours, and he tells us that there are probably 300 or so more people who are here who generally don't camp at any other time of the year except summer holiday weekends.  The never-ending parade of golf carts and kids on bicycles is confirmation enough.

Donna loves to camp.  I don't.  I don't dislike it, but I've come to the conclusion that it's not my preferred way to spend a three-day weekend.  We argued about it, and she won.  She usually does.  And since she's the one who found this spot in which to park our camper for the year, she felt compelled to make sure we got our money's worth.  Donna comes from a long history of camping and enjoying the outdoors.  In her previous married-life, her family did a great deal of camping, many times in far more primitive conditions than the ones we're experiencing this weekend.  So several years ago, while living in Pittsburgh, she pleaded with me to buy a small pop-up camper.  I had never camped before, and I had never towed anything before, so I was in store for a whole set of new experiences.

The RV lifestyle is a singular one.  While many use their recreational vehicles to travel around the country, there seems to be equally as many who park them in a campground, pay an annual fee, and use them as a second home or a permanent weekend getaway.   Our camper could never be confused with these.   Yes, we have the ability to connect to electricity and water, and a propane tank enables us to do some cooking on the small two-burner stove.  And we made sure we bought a pop-up that has air-conditioning.  This style of RV, though, is missing a very important feature, which I'll elaborate on momentarily. But it's definitely a step-up from sleeping in a tent under a tree.  Good thing, because I would be a Yankees fan before I would sleep in a tent under a tree.

Camping in this quasi-prehistoric way also means that you have to rely on the campground's supplied facilities for showering and using the bathroom.  For me, that's when camping becomes "fun".  Sometimes these facilities are in close proximity to our assigned spot, and sometimes they are not.  Even if the building (or reasonable facsimilie) lies close by, there's still the issue of "quality".  A few bathroom/shower facilities are in decent shape, which means that there are less dead bees and cobwebs in the corner than normal.  And a few resemble nothing more than a spigot and a hole in the ground.  If you've never squatted over a hole, already filled with noxious fumes, on a sticky, humid evening while trying to avoid an armada of mosquitos, well, then, you just can't appreciate the great outdoors.

Camping involves a good deal of sitting and doing nothing, which for many is something that just can't be accomplished while at home.  But for those same people, simply sitting and doing nothing simply ends up not being enough.  In order to replicate the everyday chaos of non-stop work and family activities, many campers solve this dilemma by involving themselves in, yes, you guessed it,  the chaos of campground-designed activities.  It could be cookouts, or bingo, or one of a thousand kids' games.  But for some reason, the activity that universally unites followers of the RV lifestyle is karaoke.  Campers love to do karaoke.  You haven't communed with nature unless you've witnessed a nine-year-old from Dothan, Alabama sing a Lady Gaga song  on a sweltering August evening at some state park in Indiana!

The one advantage to towing a pop-up camper is that it can be used as a somewhat-suitable replacement for a hotel room.  We've taken it to a couple of weekend football games, including Notre Dame and Stanford in South Bend and the Razorbacks versus Ole Miss in Arkansas.   But at any campground, whether it be a state park or a privately-owned "resort", the portable hotel has to eventually be parked in its assigned spot.  This is usually the time where I pray that I'll be able to drive the camper to a space that doesn't require that it be backed in.  When it comes to recreational vehicles, however, my prayers are rarely answered.  There are  two things that I am incapable of doing: math, and backing up a towed camper.  I know what all the pundits, like my friend Pat in Illinois, say to do. "Just grip the wheel at the bottom, look in the mirror, and steer in the opposite direction you want to go!"  Yeah, right.  My attempts give a whole new meaning to the word "jack-knife".  Similar to our experience at the state park near South Bend, we usually end up pushing in into its spot.  The guys who sat outside of their campers on both sides of us draining cans of Budweiser seemed highly amused.

The crux of the great outdoors, however, revolves around that eternal archetype known as the campfire.  Whether you reside in a mansion-on-wheels or a tin shack surrounded by canvas, all can agree that night-time is the best time.  I do like a good fire.  And I have a fire-bug for a wife.  Donna is the "MacGyver" of the campfire world.  She can get a fire going with a Popsicle stick and a Post-It Note.  It goes without saying, though, that a good campfire is a useless campfire unless accompanied by copious amounts of beer.  Didn't Rachel Carson write extensively about that, or am I wrong?  Regardless, the consumption of fine ale while staring at burning embers, though sheer nirvana, brings me back to a dilemma that plagues the owner of the pop-up camper: how and where to relieve oneself.  Indoor plumbing is the highly-crucial yet missing element of the pop-up camper's world.  This makes the facility-location even more valuable.  Take last evening, for example.  The closest shower/bathroom location is at least 300 yards away.  Per Rachel Carson's suggestion, I allowed Great Lakes Commodore Perry IPA and I to be at one with the campfire and nature, which required multiple sojourns at least 300 yards away.  Although it does provide exercise, I prefer mine during daylight, while sober.  But, there is a backup-plan.  Several years ago, Donna's mother, in her infinite wisdom, gave us each a plastic container with a handle on it, specifically designed for emergencies such as not wanting to walk 300 yards.  Ah, when nature calls.      

Sure, the mattress is uncomfortable.  The campers next-door are too loud and the smell of propane is everywhere. There's rain in the forecast.  And a few rogue insects never seem to know their place.  But this is camping, for crying out loud.  John Muir said it: "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."  Hell, I'd settle for the sound of a shower that ran hot water for more than 3 minutes at a time.  But the sound associated with camping that I like best of all?  The slamming of the car-trunk, when everything has been packed and loaded for the journey back to civilization.  I miss my deck, which coincidentally is not only surrounded by nature but is also located a mere stone's-throw from a perfectly functional facility.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just Ran Outta Gas

I ripped off my throwback Cavaliers t-shirt and threw it on the bed, in much the same way that LeBron James peeled off his jersey while exiting the court after game 6 in Boston.  It was about the only thing he did in that series that displayed even a hint of passion.  But, after Donna rolled her eyes at my passionate display of immaturity, I politely folded it up and tucked it neatly away in the drawer, to be taken out later in the year.  I have no idea whether LBJ will be a Cavalier, or what the team will look like by opening tip in the Fall.  But I know exactly where my throwback shirt will be.

I'm still bummed.  After all the hype (too much hype, if you ask me) of assuming that the Cavs were going to reach the Eastern Conference finals, their performance against the Celtics is still puzzling.  But it's more than the performance.  Their demeanor as a team was a mystery, and the question marks were especially placed in bold-print by LeBron James.  His lack of intensity was troubling, so much so that I pondered therapy.  But I can't afford therapy.  So Donna and our friends, Jeanne and Ivan, suggested the next best thing: a Cleveland microbrew road-trip.  Who was I to argue with professionals?

Our plan was relatively simple: visit every brewpub in the greater Cleveland area in one day.  It had been almost 10 years since we attempted this before, and the Cleveland microbrewery scene had changed a bit since then.  After doing my research, we pinpointed 10 establishments that operate chiefly as brewpubs.  Some also offer extensive menus, some offer additional guest taps, and a few offered a brew-on-premise option for those interested in also making their own beer.  For the sake of time, we eliminated the places operating as good beer-bars, and just concentrated on beer being brewed locally.  As one might expect, this would be a herculean task to achieve in one day.

The Brew Kettle Tap Room and Smokehouse sat in a lackluster plaza on Pearl Road in Strongsville.  We had decided to start on the west side and move across the city, and the Brew Kettle was closest to us.  To be honest, I wasn't quite sure how to approach this journey.  Was this a scientific experiment or merely a crude form of therapy?  Should I try as many beers as possible and rate them, or should I simply taste one or several of their offerings, soak up the ambiance, moan about the Cavs, and move on?  I suppose my depression prevented me from feeling scientifically ambitious so I opted for the latter.  The Brew Kettle offered several locally-brewed beers, as well as a generous helping of guest taps.  Ivan and I both went for a sampler, which included choosing 5 off the BK's menu.  Maybe it was because my palate was at its freshest, but these beers seemed the most prolific of all we tried that day.  I'm not a particularly huge fan of lagers, but their Big Woody Lager was exceptional, very crisp and refreshing.  As I was drinking, I realized that I had had a Brew Kettle product before, the very tasty Four C's Pale Ale.  The sample I was really impressed with, however, was Old 21, their Imperial India Pale Ale.  It was rotund with flavor, with the high alcohol content really rounding out the mouth-feel.  However, Ivan and I both agreed that a series of 5-ounce samples would easily put us over the edge by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so I had to change my thinking as to how exactly I wanted to approach this.  I wondered, at the same time, whether Mike Brown had the same confusing thoughts as he ineffectively juggled the lineups throughout the series with the Celtics.  Yeah, this therapy was working.

I've mentioned before in previous posts that I'm not a prodigious drinker.  Never have been.  Donna and Jeanne, who don't drink beer, actually suggested the trip, which I thought a bit odd since they don't enjoy beer.  "I've just never seen you really drunk," Jeanne said.  This road-trip would prove to be a big task, since it doesn't take much for me to start feeling my oats.  More importantly, though, is that as my bloodstream fills with alcohol, my ability to discern the nuances of the product wanes, which (and I know you won't believe this) defeats the purpose.  But I vowed to persevere as we pulled into a parking space behind Cornerstone Brewing in Berea, the training home of the Cleveland Browns. (Berea, not the brewery)  Location-wise, Cornerstone was everything the Brew Kettle was not.  It's located in the heart of Berea's quaint downtown, a corner brick building with a welcoming outside courtyard entrance, with tall ceilings and exposed brick on the inside.   We sat down and I noticed Ivan ordering a rum and coke.  Ivan is also not the beer devotee that I am, so I figured that I was truly drinking alone now.  After pondering a sampler, I decided  to try the Sandstone, a Marzen/Oktoberfest-style lager.  I wanted one of their seasonal offerings, but they were not yet ready to be poured.  The Sandstone tasted more like an Oktoberfest than a true Marzen, and came off gritty and mild, lacking body and, to be honest, taste.  I wasn't impressed.  The others enjoyed some appetizers while I enjoyed the environment.  I liked this place, and I wondered if another visit was in order to try some of the other beers.  I tried to engage our server in conversation, but the handsome brick building on the corner seemed like the last place she wanted to be on a mild Saturday afternoon.  In fact, her mood bore a striking resemblance to the mood of the Cavs bench during the third quarter of Game 2 against Boston.  I know.  I was there at The Q to see it.

Our western-most brewery location was The Brewkeeper in North Ridgeville.  Like the Brew Kettle, it sat in an even smaller plaza.  The inside of the building was quite lively.  It housed a small wine bar in the front, which wasn't yet open during our visit.  Past that sat a small stage where a band had left their set-up gear from the night before.  To the left was a large room for the brew-yourself on-premise part of the operation, and to the right of that was the bar and taps.  Ivan still decided to stay with rum and coke, while Donna and Jeanne tried the locally-made root beer.  I opted for a sampler this time, because one of the offerings was a mead, something I'd never had before, and I couldn't argue with the price of  5 samples for $6.00.  I had their Maibock, which wasn't malty enough for my taste.  The Mad-Arillo was also a disappointment.  I like pale ales and IPA's made with the Amarillo hop, but this one seemed lacking in both hop presence and body.  I also had something called Anger Management, which tasted similar to Rogue's Dead Guy Ale.  I asked the two young ladies behind the bar about it, but all they could say was that they seemed to sell a good deal of it.  Affable girls, but not yet ready to write an article for Beer Advocate.  Last, was the Raspberry Mead.  Jeanne had a sip and liked it.  Donna had a sip and didn't.  I thought it had the taste of a sherry, but I couldn't disseminate all of the flavor profiles because of the raspberry addition.  As I glanced around, I realized two things.  I was certainly beginning to feel the effects of multiple samplers.  And, this place truly reminded me of the Cavs...an eclectic collection of pieces that fail to deliver the goods.  Not that I'm bitter, or anything.    

On our way over to North Olmsted, a Fairview Park policeman decided that he didn't like the speed limit that Jeanne chose for us.  Luckily, the wafting aroma of Anger Management had not permeated the vehicle, and he let us go.  That would allow us to arrive at Fat Head's just in time to watch the Preakness.  Fat Head's is the sister location of the origianl Fat Head's Saloon on Carson Street in Pittsburgh.  I had visited the Pittsburgh location but only had a chance to sample several of their guest taps.  This time, I passed on the sampler when our waiter told us that they had several beers on cask.  I adore cask-conditioned ale.  And with the hop-failure from our visit in North Ridgeville, I had my taste-buds set on something with a generous amount of I.B.U's.  Their Happy Ending American Pale Ale did not disappoint.  It was creamy and hoppy, with a slightly sweet after-burn.  With the carbonation levels down and the temperature just right for a cask ale, this guy was one of the highlights of the day.  It's the same feeling I got when Anthony Parker would take a shuttle pass from Lebron, step back beneath the 3-point arc, and find the bottom of the net. Except with this beer, it would happen every time.  A-P, unfortunately, always promised several clunkers, especially during the playoffs.

I've been to the Rocky River Brewing Company before.  Apparently, so had others, as it was packed!  The main bar-area and restaurant were pretty full, so they took us to a heated deck-patio in the back.  I appreciated the heaters.  My shorts and short-sleeved shirt carried me through most of a fairly pleasant day, but it was getting towards 5:30p and it was starting to get chilly.  I vaguely remembered this place from our last tour.  I knew I was there, but I didn't remember too much about it.  I  recall reading some fairly stellar reviews on Beer Advocate.  Since my only beer-drinking partner preferred to fall into a vat of rum, I was again on my own.  I was also starting to feel a bit "blurry" and I wondered if spending the time on a sampler would be worth it.  I gazed at the menu.  I'm a sucker for anything with the word "bock" in it, and I remember one reviewer mentioning the existence of a Triple Bock.  I didn't see it listed, so I settled on a Helles Bock.  It had nice malt presence and was crisp, but a bit more hazy than what normally exists for this style.  As I worked my way through it, I wondered briefly if it hadn't picked up some off-flavors, as I detected a bit of a wet-cardboard tinge.  As I drained the last contents and watched a large group of people in the next section celebrate a birthday, I also got this subtle feeling that both from a time- and a brain-cell perspective, our journey probably wasn't going to go on for much longer.  Plus, it would take an additional hour to get home and Maggie's bladder was probably chomping at the bit.  As we made our way to the car, I mentioned to Donna that perhaps we ought to make our next stop the last one on the tour.  I didn't get many objections, so off we went to Lakewood.

The Buckeye Brewing Company is housed in the same location as the Buckeye Beer Engine.  This place offers a healthy beer list, which includes the offerings of BBC.  We managed a seat at the bar, and before I decided on my last beer of the night, I figured it was time to order some food.  The hummus was pretty good, and it allowed me to take some time to peruse the menu.  They had 2 beers on cask, but none of them were from Buckeye Brewing.  After looking things over, I decided on the Hippie IPA, and upon first sip immediately remembered that I had taken a bottle of this back to St. Louis with me once, after a visit to Primos Deli.  Oh, well.  It paired nicely with the hummus, and it was a good way to round out the evening.  I had also brought a growler with me, in case I found something I wanted to take home.  On their menu, I noticed that they had Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA, and I thought that would be a perfect selection to accompany me on the deck the next evening.  But after she informed that it would cost $40.00 to fill my jug, intelligence prevailed, and my growler went home empty.  I felt the way many Cavs fans feel about the prospects of LeBron James being a Cavalier again...stupendous product but expensive, and probably going home with somebody else.

I had gazed at the itinerary of our trip all week, and I had a sneaking suspicion that we wouldn't cover all of Cuyahoga County in a single day.  At some spots, we simply enjoyed each others' company and probably spent too much time.  We never made it to Great Lakes, although we will be there in another month when our friends, Pat and Kathy, visit from Illinois.  Rock Bottom was also on the list, although I've never been particularly fond of their beers.  Cleveland Chophouse and Brewery lay waiting, another chain, and as I remember, a place with some fairly serviceable brews.  The last place on our list was Willoughby Brewing Company, all the way over on the far east side in Lake County.  As we drove home, though, I realized that today's event wasn't a race as much as it was an attempted therapeutic marathon, a way to celebrate the upcoming warmer weather, good friends, and, a bit to my surprise, a really good beer town!   The only thing we weren't celebrating was a championship for the city of Cleveland.  That's ok.  With time and a few jolts of quality ale, the wounds eventually heal.  And LeBron or no LeBron, I'll still unfold my throwback Cavs t-shirt and throw it on, regardless as to who is wearing No. 23.  Or No. 6.  Or whatever number he decides to wear.  Hey, there's always the Browns!  Oh, wait a second...

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Caught By a Man from Saginaw!

I felt like some sort of deranged uberfan, but I probably just looked like a geek.  Standing there in the hallway outside of the broadcast booth at Camden Yards, I was thankful for the brief burst of air conditioning.  It was a stifling August day, and my radio station-supplied Orioles t-shirt felt a bit plastered to my body.  First pitch was only about 10 minutes away, and both myself and Jim Hunter, one of the announcers form the O's radio crew, couldn't quite figure out why it was taking so long for Ernie Harwell to come out of the men's room.

During my time at Sports Talk 980 in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to take of advantage of a number of sporting events and free-ticket opportunities.  A few years before the Montreal Expos bolted for the nation's capital, most people from the area followed the team from Baltimore.  It's been eight years since I lived there, so perhaps some still do.  Our station was the D.C. affiliate, which meant that there were plenty of chances to head north on I-95 and soak up the ambiance of what is one of my favorite ballparks of all time.  Those free tickets that I would get for that Sunday contest between the Orioles and Tigers were particularly special, because I would have the opportunity to meet one of my play-by-play heroes.

It's no secret that baseball is my favorite sport.  One of the ways that I enjoy it best is to hear it played on radio.  I often tell Donna that if I were to start my broadcasting career over again, I think I would have tried to travel the baseball play-by-play route.  Obviously it's too late for that now.  Unlike the ample opportunities available for broadcasters to hone their skills calling high school football and basketball games, very few options exist for those who aspire to call the action on the diamond. A career in the booth usually means trying to hook up with a minor league team.  Sure, it can be a full-time job, but it also means low pay, moving to places like Wichita Falls, Texas or Binghamton, New York, and filling time between games as a sports information director, box office assistant, or as a helper on the field rolling up the tarp after a thunderstorm.

When I was a kid, me and my Philco transistor were best friends.  During those humid July nights, I would hold the radio up against my ear on the pillow and use my thumb to spin the dial.  If the Indians were getting hammered, as was usually the case, I would switch ballparks.  Sometimes I'd land on WLW at listen to Marty and Joe call the fortunes of the Big Red Machine. ("...and this one belongs to the Reds!")   Sometimes it would be the Cards on KMOX, with the voice of Jack Buck ringing throughout the Midwest.  One night it would be the Cubs on WGN, and another night the Braves on WSB.  But invariably, I'd twirl that knob so that it would land on 760 and WJR. There was something soothing about the Southern-tinged tones of the voice of the Detroit Tigers, an easy, home-spun lilt that one would expect to hear if you were sitting on the porch and listening to, say, Andy Griffith.

Ernie Harwell was everything that many current play-by-play men are not: graceful, unpretentious, and devoid of this recent trend of announcers being somewhat bigger than the game.  Ernie Harwell didn't have to beat you down with inane statistics, as is the case with many radio and TV crews today.  He was the quintessence of what a baseball play-by-play announcer should be, one who describes the action on the field because the listener can't be there to see it for himself.  He didn't feel the need to fill in every space between pitches with a boat-load of biographical data on the player in the batter's box.  You knew when Mickey Lolich picked up the rosin bag.  You knew  when Dick McAuliffe was playing on the cut of the grass.  You knew if the wind was blowing in from right field.  But it doesn't mean that Ernie didn't get excited.  He did.  When Al Kaline ripped one into the gap, or when Gates Brown crushed one into the seats in left, you knew it!  But as was Ernie's style, his enthusiasm was real, genuine.

And, of course, the "Ernie-isms" are legendary.  Sure, every baseball announcer has his own unique lexicon, but on those humid July evenings, Ernie's somehow stood out.  Is there a better way to hear a double-play called as "two for the price of one"?  And how he knew that the man who caught that pop-up behind the visitor's dugout was from Saginaw, I'll never know!  Still, amongst all of the action on the field, Ernie always remained the Southern gentleman, easily complimenting Mark Belanger on a fine fielding play, or even referring to the Red Sox first baseman as "Mr.Yastrzemski".  No, he may not have possessed the poetic flair of a Vin Scully or the mellifluous tones of a Jon Miller.   That fluid baritone drawl, though, describing the exploits of his beloved "Tiges" was enough to keep me from changing the dial.

Needless to say, I was brimming with enthusiasm and excitement as I made my way to the Inner Harbor that Sunday.  The night before, Fred Manfra had had Ernie in the Orioles booth and asked him if he would call an inning, (I taped it, and still have it on a compact disc) so I knew the Sunday game would be the final time that Ernie would be visiting Baltimore.  I had asked one of the promotions assistants if she could get me a credential to go up to the broadcast booth to meet Ernie.  She arranged for me to rendezvous with Jim Hunter, who would then introduce me to "Mr.Harwell".        

So there I was, standing in the hallway outside of the broadcast booth, holding my copy of Ernie's book, "Stories from My Life in Baseball", watching Jim Price make funny faces at Fred Manfra through the glass of the Tigers booth, while waiting for Ernie Harwell.  As Jim and I chat, a short man in a checkered shirt, tan slacks, and a cap comes bouncing down the hallway, almost skipping.  Jim blurts out, "Ernie, could you pop over for a second?"  Ernie smiles and says sure, and Jim introduces me.  I shake his hand, tell him what a big fan I am, and explain how much I've enjoyed his broadcasts over the years.  "That's fine, Mac.  Glad to have ya listening".  I really didn't want to ruin the moment by correcting him, but I did tell him that although I was raised as an Indians fan, I've always had a soft spot for the Tigers.  Knowing that he was due in the booth, I finally asked him to sign my book.  "It's Matt, right?," he asks.  I nod and watch him scribble in my book.  Jim Hunter had also asked Fred Manfra if he would take a few photos, which he did. After a quick minute of talk, Ernie announced that he needed to get to the booth.  We shook hands, I thanked Jim, and then floated downstairs on the way to my seat in the ballpark.

Ernie Harwell died this week from cancer.  He knew it was terminal and he decided to let nature take its course.  In interviews, he didn't gripe or moan.  Like the gentleman that he was, he told reporters that he had had a great life, both in baseball and outside of the game, and whatever happens, happens.  I've been feeling sad this week because of it. It's a strange feeling, mourning the death of someone whom you don't know.  And yet, I think it's in some ways a more difficult passing to deal with.  No, meeting someone in a hallway for a couple of minutes doesn't qualify as "knowing" them.  But my moment with Ernie Harwell was the culmination of a number of great moments, when I, like many fans,  got to know the affable gentleman from Georgia the next best way: through the small, tinny speaker of a transistor radio on a humid summer night.

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