Monday, June 29, 2009


Is "bee"-ing outside the best part of summer?

I went to a baseball game and got sunburned. I have a fair complexion, but I was prepared, or so I thought. I covered myself in Coppertone Sports waterproof SPF 45 and sat in the sun for three hours. I even wore a cap so I wouldn't sunburn my head.

I don't know how I wore the sunscreen off my knees. There wasn't enough legroom to cross my legs, so I didn't rub it off that way. Maybe I rested my elbows on my knees and leaned forward, but that sounds pretty uncomfortable and I think I'd remember doing that. Frankly, I have no idea how my knees got sunburned with SPF 45 on them, but they did, two large, beet-red circles on my otherwise white legs.

I went to another baseball game with my son the next day and once again doused myself in SPF 45, and this time I paid extra attention to my knees. They may have been protected from more burn, but they stung like hell when the early afternoon sun hit them. Necessity being the mother of invention, I reached into my stadium seat's largest pocket and pulled out two sheets of typing paper. I probably should have checked to see if they contained information I might need again some day, like Mapquest directions home from the ballpark, but all I could think about was how much my knees hurt.

I took each sheet of paper, laid it lengthwise atop each leg and rolled it around the top of the leg, protruding out over the knee like a little porch, then slid it under the legs of my shorts a couple of inches to hold it in place. It worked like a charm so long as I didn't stand up. Instantly, my knees stopped stinging.

I noticed my son was staring at me.

"What?" I asked.

"Dad, you look like a dork."

"I don't care", I told him. "My knees don't hurt, anymore."

He shook his head and leaned away from me, trying to look like he had come to the game with the guy sitting on his other side.

I went fly fishing with my son a few days later and, having learned my lesson, I put on loads of SPF 45. I reapplied several times during the day, being careful to cover both knees. I didn't get sunburned. I did, however, get mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes bit my left forearm in nine places. Nine! I also got one bite on the back of my neck, but it was the exception. None of my other exposed appendages were bitten. I have no idea why the mosquitoes only bit my left forearm; you'd have to ask them. I suspect that someone just hadn't read the attack plan. You know, you can ask ten guys to meet you at Burger King and there will be one guy every time who calls you from Hardee's and wants to know why everyone else is late.

I was awakened very early the next morning by my arm itching so badly that I threw it straight up into the air and fiercely rubbed it with my other hand. Unfortunately, when I threw my arm into the air, I knocked the lampshade off the lamp on my bedside table and woke up my wife.

Purely by chance, I had my annual appointment with the dermatologist the following day and she winced when she saw my bites. She suggested cortisone and gave me two small sample tubes of prescription strength cortisone cream. I applied the ointment to the bites just twice and the itching went away entirely. The bites are brown now, who knows why, but at least they don't itch.

Today, I needed to work in the yard, though the temperature was in the nineties. I doused myself with SPF 45 and waited for it to dry. When it did, I sprayed myself all over with DeepWoods Off, you know, 40% DEET. I wore a cap to protect my scalp and put on sunglasses, just in case. I even sprayed the cap with Off.

I had been working outside for maybe five minutes when a bee stung my left calf.

So, yeah. It's summer.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mint Juleps

Since retiring, I've tried to organize my life around projects. Sometimes they're writing projects, maybe a self-improvement effort or an undertaking to improve my sporting clays shooting. I made a New Years resolution this year to raise my fly-casting skills to the next level. This spring I even upgraded the wiring and plumbing on my swimming pool. Recently, however, I hit on a great idea for my next project, given that I grew up right smack dab in the middle of the bourbon distilling region of Kentucky. I'm experimenting to find the best recipe for mint juleps.

I tried a mint julep decades ago, one of those Kentucky Derby specials that taste like a mixture of creme de menthe, Karo syrup and Very Old Barton, and swore never again to taste such a vile concoction. Years later, at a business dinner in Atlanta at Pittypat's Porch, I noticed that mint juleps were a house specialty. I ordered one and discovered that it wasn't mint juleps I hated, but bad mint juleps.

You might assume this project is self-serving, decadent or simply unimportant (my wife thought it all three), but it actually poses a number of intellectual challenges that I believe I have cleverly resolved. It is an optimization problem, actually, that requires determining the maximum rate at which the tester can drink mint juleps without becoming sick of mint juleps (or just plain sick), without losing the ability to read and execute a recipe, and yet not extending the process so long that the tester simply loses interest before completing the project.

It should go without saying that one should not overlap a project like this one, in an attempt to maximize productivity, with projects such as the aforementioned upgrades to swimming pool wiring and plumbing, or improving one's shotgun skills.

I completed an experimentation session earlier, which explains why the last paragraph took over a half hour to write. . . I need to lie down now.

OK, I'm back. (Where did the afternoon go?)

The first challenge is how to run many tests of a drink that you wouldn't want to have every day. Mint juleps have a very strong bourbon flavor and they're sweet. That makes them ideal for a dessert substitute after a meal of say, pork barbecue or grilled filet mignon coated with peppery Montreal Grill Seasoning, or in lieu of a midafternoon lemonade on the porch, but one is typically plenty. I considered mixing half recipes, but some recipes are difficult to split and might call into question the validity of the test results.

It occurred to me to mix the drink but only taste it and throw the rest away. That turned out to require more willpower than I apparently possess. I finally decided to mix two different full recipe drinks at a time, one for my wife and one for me, and to taste hers. She is not a mint julep fan though, so I usually end up finishing hers off after mine. Waste not, want not.

The next challenge is the cost of purchasing several brands of bourbon. This I easily resolved by buying those little airline bottles. Fortunately, the local ABC store stocks a wide variety of small bottles of bourbon. I know this because when I go to a Tar Heel football game, bourbon's distinct bouquet wafts through the stands just as strongly as it it did when I was growing up near Bardstown, Kentucky and because the bathrooms are littered with tiny, empty Ancient Age and Maker's Mark bottles. I guess fans need the privacy because drinking at the stadium is prohibited, but it does seem like they could find a more appropriate location to mix a drink than a men's room stall. (The ACC bans the sale of alcohol at conference events, unlike the SEC, where drinking at a football game is a requirement for admission.)

I found through extensive experimentation that a good mint julep requires good bourbon, but not necessarily sipping-grade bourbon. I learned that for sipping, Rob Creek really knocks. I'm sorry, I meant to say, "Knob Creek really rocks". This nine-year-old bourbon is distilled just a few miles from the high school I attended. It didn't significantly improve the taste of my mint juleps, though, because the sugar and mint mask the subtleties of the bourbon's taste.

Fresh mint is readily available in grocery store produce departments, but my wife grows it in an herb garden on the deck so I just pick a handful. If you decide to grow your own, plant it in a pot rather than a flowerbed, because the stuff spreads like kudzu.

Mint julep recipes range from simple to extremely complex. Food Network suggests a recipe for the perfect mint julep that serves ten to twelve and requires no less than twenty-four hours and thirty minutes to cook. Yeah, cook. I don't want a mint julep that badly. Ever.

Many of the recipes differ on the simple syrup component. The more complex approach is to boil equal parts water and sugar until the sugar completely dissolves, then cool the mixture until it becomes a syrup. A much simpler approach with no pot to wash is mixing a tablespoon of superfine sugar with two tablespoons of hot water. Garden & Gun magazine printed a nice recipe using superfine sugar. (By the way, if you have any interest at all in the lifestyle of the South, this evocatively named magazine is a must.) I have found that stirring the hot water and superfine sugar until the mixture is clear provides a result that is nearly indistinguishable from the simple syrup recipes and has the added benefit of using only half the sugar. I like the slightly less sweet taste.

Some recipes differ from the classic enough to offend traditionalists. Bobby Flay, for example, suggests adding six or eight muddled blackberries to allow the tangy fruit to complement the sweetness of the simple syrup. Blackberries have been my favorite fruit since I first tried my grandma's blackberry cobbler, so I appreciate this addition. I found it to be a nice change of pace that I would consider under the right circumstances, such as having recently tasted dozens of mint juleps without blackberries.

Ultimately, I decided that the best mint julep is a traditional recipe with superfine sugar, though using simple syrup provides a comparable, but slightly sweeter drink. I suggest a good bourbon, but not sipping-grade unless you just happen to have some on hand. If you were born in the South, don't use the Woodford Reserve you keep in the study for Christmas and Derby Day, use the Ancient Age you keep in the hurricane emergency supply kit, you know, next to the bottled water and the flashlight batteries:

A Near-Perfect Mint Julep

2 oz. (4 Tbsp) good bourbon (great bourbon acceptable, but unnecessary)
1 oz. (2 Tbsp) hot water
2 oz. (1 Tbsp) superfine sugar
8 mint leaves and one mint sprig for garnish
crushed ice (absolutely necessary)
a straw

Put the hot water into an old-fashioned or mint julep glass and add the sugar. Stir until the mixture is clear. Add the mint leaves and bruise them with a muddler or wooden spoon to extract the oil from the leaves. Do this somewhat gently; dont try to beat the oil out of them. Add the bourbon, fill the glass with crushed ice slightly mounded over the top of the glass and insert the mint sprig garnish. Insert a straw and cut it off about two inches above the glass so you smell the mint sprig when you sip. Stir the drink slightly with the straw.

The crushed ice is a key component. If you mix this drink and immediately take a sip, you're going to get a shot of nearly straight bourbon that will knock your socks off, which is fine if you actually want your socks knocked off. If you're happy with your socks, it's best to wait a couple of minutes until a little crushed ice melts and makes a kinder, gentler drink.

Of course, if you wait too long on a hot day, all that crushed ice will melt and soon water down the drink, but this drink is so good you're going to finish it long before that happens.

I prefer this recipe because the additional preparation time of more complex recipes doesn't add that much to the taste. It's an excellent compromise between expediency and taste. This is not a drink that you'll crave often, but when you do, it really hits the spot.

Personally, though, I don't think I'll need another for quite a while.

I need to lie down now.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


When I began attending UNC baseball games in 2006, Garrett Gore was a freshman with a good glove at second, no offense, and no nickname. Pitchers Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller would soon play in the major leagues, Chad Flack would become Mr. Clutch and a host of other players on the team seemed destined for the big leagues. Carolina would make its first of four straight appearances in the College World Series in Omaha, with Garrett as a role player.

Photo by Joe Bray

took over the starting second base role at the end of his freshman year and ended the season batting .227 and committing four errors. He finished that year at the College World Series in Omaha, one game short of a national championship. I thought Garrett would be an outstanding second baseman, but I didn't expect a lot from his bat.

Garrett owned second base his sophomore year. Paired with shortstop Josh Horton, the Tar Heel's middle infield was formidable. Much to my surprise, he also increased his batting average nearly 100 points to .324 and won an award for being the Tar Heel's Most Improved Player. He committed only six errors and made a second trip to Omaha, again falling just short of the championship, but he was becoming a recognized key to the Tar Heel's success. In his spare time, a scarce commodity for college athletes, he made the Dean's List.

At the end of his junior year's regular season, the wheels came off. With the departure of Josh Horton to the majors, Coach Fox moved Garrett to shortstop, a very different position than second base. He came into the last few series of the season with a handful of errors, but his throws to first base began to sail on him and frequently ended up in the visitor's dugout. He would commit a whopping 21 errors before being demoted to designated hitter. Leaving the field after yet another throwing error, I watched Coach Fox meet him at the third baseline and gently tap his fingers on Garrett's temple. "It's all right up here now."

As Garrett's troubles at shortstop grew, I found myself becoming a bigger fan. Ryan Graepel took over his shortstop position and Garrett was relegated to just a hitting role, but I noticed that every time we really needed a hit from him, he delivered. I cheered for his every plate appearance. My friends gave me puzzled looks, but that made me support him even more. "Shortstop isn't his natural position", I'd tell them. "The team just needed him to replace Horton. Don't give up on him." Garrett made his third trip to Omaha as the DH.

Opening day of the 2009 season was also the debut of the renovated Boshamer Stadium. We had a sellout crowd and my group of friends, about a dozen retirees and spouses, had bought season tickets together. We're perhaps an unlikely bunch, retirees ranging in age from mid-fifties to nearing eighty, a few diehard Yankee fans sitting next to a few died-in-the-wool Red Sox fans. I, myself am a Kentucky Wildcat fan to the core, who loves college baseball and happened to retire in the town where the Tar Heels play their home games. Some of us went to UNC, but others are alumni of UNC Charlotte, Boston College and other fine schools. Somehow, we come together every spring to share a common love-- college baseball-- and to support a team many of us "adopted".

We huddled under blankets on a cold but sunny February 20th and were surprised to find that Garrett Gore had moved to right field. Suddenly, the arm that had overthrown first base so often was throwing 330-foot strikes from right field. He threw out base runners at the plate, until they learned not to try to score on him. He picked up singles in right field and gunned down runners at first who made the turn to second a little too aggressively. He ran down everything catchable. Then he caught the uncatchable.

Photo by Joe Bray

The first weekend in March, during a tight ACC series with Clemson, the Tiger's batter smashed a pitch over the right field wall with a runner on first. Garrett ran and leaped above the fence for the ball, crashing into the padded wall, and fell to the ground. The batter began his home run strut to first. Clemson fans cheered, Tar Heel fans were silent, and the Tiger's other base runner was nearly to third when Garrett jumped up off the ground, pulled the ball out of his glove and threw to first base to double off the runner. What had appeared to be a two-run homer became a double play. Adam Warren, who would later be picked up in the 4th round of the draft by the New York Yankees said in his NCAA blog, "Garrett Gore's robbing catch on Saturday was most likely the best play I have seen in my baseball career."

Garrett had also caught a nickname, "G", the ultimate sign of respect. We yelled it when he came to the plate and we watched with great anticipation when a ball was hit to right field because we knew we might see something spectacular.

His batting improved, too. Going into the 2009 College World Series, he was hitting .307 on the year and had committed just three errors. In the NCAA Regional series, Kansas' coach decided to change pitchers when Garrett came to bat with the bases loaded. With only three homers through the season, Garrett drove the reliever's first pitch, a fast ball, over the wall in dead center field for the first grand slam of his career at any level. His next plate appearance, facing the same reliever, Garrett slammed a first pitch fastball over the wall in left center. A Jayhawk fan sitting behind me deadpanned, "I don't believe I'd throw him another fastball."

The following weekend in the NCAA Super Regional series against East Carolina, Garrett crushed yet another homer to dead center, hitting the wall high above the 405-feet mark.

If the big leagues drafted "heart", Garrett Gore would go in the first round. He wasn't drafted and I'm sure he didn't expect to be, though seven Tar Heels were. (My Wildcats had four players drafted by the MLB in 2009 themselves, thank you.) Fittingly, with all the major league talent the Tar Heels have fielded for the past four years, Garrett Gore, who wears number 4 on his jersey, is one of only four Tar Heels who have been to Omaha four times. His twenty-first College World Series appearance against Arizona State in his last college game gave Garrett the CWS record for most games played. He has been a major contributor to UNC's baseball success since he arrived on campus. He's a good student and a great kid with an infectious smile. A sports photographer commented in the caption of a photo of one of Garrett's heroics that he was one of the finest young men that the photographer had ever met, and he meets a lot of them.

I met Garrett and his parents at the Boshamer Stadium dedication. I told him I was his biggest fan and that my friend's had even jokingly asked if I had adopted him. He smiled and said, "I didn't know I had any fans after last year. These are my parents. They're probably ready to get rid of me." Hardly. Every parent's dream is to raise a kid who can hit a rough patch in the road and come back stronger than ever.

Garrett went to college to get an education and not just as a stop along the way to professional baseball. He didn't play to get a scholarship, either. Most college baseball players get a small fraction of a scholarship, at best. He played for a national championship and realized every ounce of his potential along the way.

December 2009

Post  (from the internet is always right: intrepid media 2009)

Sometimes, I pour my heart into a piece and work on it for months or even years. These are the pieces that I love and want people to read. Sometimes, a piece spills out onto the page in half an hour and it turns out to be one that people want to read. “G” is a bit of both. It flowed easily onto the page and it was heartfelt. I have written pieces that I love more, but I am usually writing about events that have impacted my life. This time, writing something was the event that impacted my life.

“G” is about a college athlete I hardly knew at the time. I wrote it in less than an hour one evening after watching a kid who had struggled mightily the year before hit two home runs off consecutive pitches in a playoff game, one of them a grand slam.

I say, ”hardly knew at the time”, because Garrett Gore and I have become friends since the column. He emailed me after reading it, we met to talk, and soon Sunday afternoons became the time we meet at Fosters Market to chat about baseball over an iced tea. We also chat about his career plans, to become a color commentator for sports broadcasts, and his final semester of college. I'm helping him with the job search and a paper he's writing on social networking. I have a son Garrett's age and two children a few years younger and it's striking how much easier it is to mentor someone else's son.

Garrett wrote me that what struck him about my column was how I seemed to have seen from a bleacher seat exactly what was going on in his career. He complained that he usually reads columns by sportswriters with direct access to the players and wonders if they have ever gone to a baseball game. I suspect that's because I was writing about what was going on in his life and not about his batting stance or his on-base percentage.

Garrett confided that after his last college baseball game, having been eliminated from his fourth College World Series by Arizona State, he felt a strange sense of relief. The pressure was off for the first time in a long while. He was packing his suitcase in his hotel room after that game when a sports announcer stopped by to suggest he read the column I had written. He walked into his parents' room to find his mother reading the column and crying, a revelation that I absorbed with mixed emotions. Making his mother cry was the last thing I intended. Garrett says he told her to stop crying or he would start.

“G” isn't about baseball, though Garrett's amazing talent and tenacity certainly provided a great backdrop. It's about an overachieving, personable kid from Wilmington, NC with great parents and a great work ethic who hit a rough patch in the road and grew because of it. Writing his resume has been a snap.

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