A Baseball Bacchanal

A Baseball Bacchanal

A BASEBALL BACCHANAL

I’m preparing for my first game of the season at Citifield, so I decided to revisit my story about the Acela Club and add a new photo.  Tracey Nieporent is a great host and a wonderful meal can be had before and during the game.

It’s great to talk about food and baseball with others who are equally passionate on the subjects and recently I was fortunate enough to do so with the Nieporent brothers, Drew and Tracy, as well as Mike Landeen, Senior Vice President, Venue Services & Operations for the New York Mets. Along with Nobu and the Tribeca Grill, the Nieporents have added the Acela Club at Citi Field to their restaurant empire, which has dramatically changed the way fans can experience a professional baseball game.

Major League baseball games have become continually longer, with the average length about three hours. Instead of complaining about it (like me) the Mets organization has addressed the problem with extracurricular activities at the ballpark, many of them involving food.

According to Landeen, gastronomy was an integral part of Citi Field’s original planning. “When we began designing Citi Field it was our intention to pick the best of the best of New York so we got Danny Meyer (Shake Shack) and Dave Pasternack (Esca, Catch of the Day) and of course Drew Nieperont,” he said. It was the Mets’ mission to redefine the dining experience at sports and entertainment facilities, and they have certainly done so from the basic concession stands to the Acela Club, a pristine glass house sitting high above left field, it’s perfection obscured only by an orange foul pole.

“We treat people like we want to be treated ourselves,” said Drew.  “It’s entertainment,” added Tracy. The expansive glass wall affords a view of the entire stadium and with televisions placed strategically throughout the restaurant it’s hard to miss any aspect of the game.

At most other premium stadium restaurants, the food is usually served buffet style, and that is something the Acela Club has avoided. “Stadiums are like cruise ships. You have a small window of time to feed a large group of people so buffet style is often the easiest method,” said Landeen. “We like to call buffets food coffins, because they kill the food.”

The Acela Club is setup so you can order an entree (seven choices) from a menu but appetizers and salads can be obtained at market tables or “grazing stations,” as Tracy Nieporent likes to call them. These stations are not typical stadium buffets because there are no steam tables. The Butcher Block station offers prosciutto, salami, along with artisanal cheeses and breads. The Antipasti station offers salads and marinated vegetables while the Al Forno station has meatballs, caesar salad and thin crust pizzas. Taqueria, the fourth station, has assorted tacos, chips and salsas.

Our waitress Erina helped me and my friend Joe navigate the menu and more importantly, the restaurant, which has four separate tiers. We sampled almost everything at the market tables (it’s all you can eat) and I ordered the New York strip steak while Joe decided on the steamed branzino. We both enjoyed all the fare from the market tables but the standouts were perfectly prepared meatballs plus a delicious crispy Caesar salad with the exact amount of necessary dressing . The entrees were just the right size to accompany the amount of food available at the various stations. My strip steak was tender as a filet but more flavorful and seasoned like a dream with tarragon, shallots and garlic herb butter. Joe’s branzino was steamed with leeks in a saffron mussel broth and excellent as well. The cost for dinner is $48.00 for adults and $25.00 for children and given the prices of hot dogs and beers that’s a very good deal. The wine list is reasonable with prices ranging from $36.00 to $150.00 per bottle. “There’s something here for every New Yorker,” said Joe. Amazingly, we made room for dessert and the panna cotta was excellent but the showstopper was the raspberry cheesecake donuts which would easily make the Homer Simpson hall of fame.

We sat down at our table shortly before the game began and stayed until the fifth inning when we returned to our seats. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to is that the restaurant is soundproof so you can’t hear any stadium noise, but the same holds true when watching a game at a sports bar or restaurant, and this was certainly a far different and better experience. “You immediately know that you’re a part of the game because everyone stops for the national anthem,” said Tracy, and in fact they did, with the majority of customers standing up.

More importantly, unlike other stadiums, most seats at Citi Field allow entry into the Acela Club. “We have a chance to create friendships,” said Tracy. “We want to serve everyone who comes to the stadium and offer a gracious dining experience without being elitist.”

TRIPLE CROWN TRASH TALK

TRIPLE CROWN TRASH TALK

TRIPLE CROWN TRASH TALK

Like so many others, I’ve been inspired by the story of California Chrome. So much in fact, that despite not being a fan of horse racing, I decided to make the pilgrimage to Belmont Park at the urging of my friend, John, who sits in an area at the track reserved for horsemen – people who own, breed, train, or tend horses. (I looked it up)

My last experience with horseracing was nearly 40 years ago, during my college years, when I used to watch the trotters at the Meadowlands. I will never forget meeting Mickey Rivers (Yankees All-Star outfielder) at the track and he promptly asked to “borrow” some money. I was 20 years old and star struck so I gave him 15 dollars.

I didn’t meet any baseball players, but Penn Station was unusually crowded, and the LIRR added trains to help accommodate the nearly 120,000 people who attended the Belmont Stakes. I’ve never seen so many people at a sporting event, and much of the excitement was focused on the owners of California Chrome – Steve Coburn and Perry Martin – a pair of jesters in the Sport of Kings. They greeted everyone warmly in the horsemen boxes and posed for pictures tirelessly. I snapped a quick shot of them together and Coburn quipped, “We don’t even like each other!”

There was plenty to like about being at Belmont and after leaving Coburn and Martin I met James Pippo, owner of the Whitehall Stable in Albany NY, who invited me to sit with him and his friends. I explained to Pippo that I knew more about the hats and dresses worn by the women in the crowd than horses, so he gave me a quick tutorial.

Pippo clearly loves what he does and told me that owning a horse is “highly speculative, although just one horse can change your life.” “But if you’re in this for the money,” he added, “then you shouldn’t be in it. I’m here because horse racing’s in my blood.” We talked a bit more about college football and I moved on to mingle with the crowd, which was enormous. There was such a bizarre mix of fashionable women, passionate racing fans and wildly annoying drunken frat boys that I’m certain a new reality show is in the works.

I made a few bets (and lost) but California Chrome was the reason I came, and as the horse came onto the track my mouth got dry and my hands became sweaty. With so much anticipation and buildup, it’s hard to reach any kind of happy outcome without a victory, and the entire crowd seemed disappointed. Nonetheless, it was a memorable day and I’m glad I made the trip.

As for Steve Coburn’s post-race comments, I am not surprised by what he said. Coburn is certainly aware of the rules, so they shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him, but he’s not a typical horseman and probably doesn’t have a media consultant, so he spoke his mind at an emotional moment, as his 15 minutes of fame came to an end.

There’s a first time for everything, even trash talking at Belmont Park.

(Owners Martin & Coburn pre-race)

(Owners Martin & Coburn pre-race)

 

ADMIRING OUR CURRENT HEROES

ADMIRING OUR CURRENT HEROES

(USS Cole VLS covers)

ADMIRING OUR CURRENT HEROES

My father, Jesse Taub, served in WWII and took Memorial Day very seriously, but never explained to me why it was celebrated.  Every year he made me wear my Boy Scout uniform and march in parades.  Sometimes I had to sing songs.  I hated it.

As I got older I came to learn that Memorial Day is observed to remember our fallen soldiers and since my father passed away a few years ago it’s become a very important holiday for me.  My father served as an Assistant Pharmacist’s Mate on the Battleship New Jersey and was an original crew member or “plank owner,” as he liked to call himself.  He was incredibly proud of his military service, but seldom spoke of it.

Yesterday, my family and I had the privilege of touring the USS Cole, a guided missile Destroyer which was docked in Staten Island for Fleet Week.  I was born in Staten Island, and my father lived there when he joined the Navy, so it was a good homecoming for us.

The USS Cole is an impressive vessel (approximate crew is 283) and there was a huge turnout of people to tour the ship.  Our guide, Lt. JG Douglas Kroh, was knowledgeable, polite and extremely patient.  As he took us through the Cole, we met a variety of specialists, who immediately made it clear why the ship is called a Destroyer.

I’ve always loved military acronyms, and the sailors on the Cole had plenty of them.  The tour began with the VLS (Vertical Launching System) a rather inconspicuous group of steel plates that I wouldn’t have paid much notice had I not been informed that when opened they launch tomahawk missiles and torpedoes.  Close by was what action movies call Fast Boats, but Ensign Hannah Taylor explained it was a RHIB, or Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat.  I also found that the Navy has a sense of humor, when I pointed out that a 20mm machine gun (four thousand rounds per minute) looked like R2D2 from Star Wars I was told that’s what they call it.

My father’s explanation for choosing the Navy was he wanted to know he’d a have “a decent place to sleep and three square meals a day.”  The Cole’s mess hall is hip, comfortable and popular with the crew and probably wouldn’t be out of place on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  The hallway directly outside takes on a more somber tone and is known as the Hall of Heroes, dedicated to the 17 sailors who lost their lives when the Cole was attacked by terrorists on October 12, 2000.  There are also 17 brass stars embedded in the floor, and every time a sailor walks down the hall, they remove their hat for the brief journey.

I’ve toured many Navy vessels and my favorite area is usually the bridge.  I’d describe the Cole’s bridge as old school, save for one piece of equipment that looks like a Nintendo control.  It was explained to me that it’s a remote control device for a 25mm chain gun, so perhaps not every future soldier or sailor will need to look like Mark Wahlberg to fight the enemy.

A tour of the Cole would not have been complete without meeting the Commanding Officer, Captain Dennis L. Farrell, an Annapolis graduate with 24 years of service.  The Captain is a self-described “ship driver” who reminded me of the coach or boss that you only hear or read about, but very few of us are actually lucky enough to encounter.  Captain Farrell greeted me warmly and said, “Welcome to the best ship in the Navy!”  He told us about the preparation and “the unbelievable amount of training” the crew goes through prior to being deployed and I was wowed by the dedication of these young men and women who are responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, which they operate with great proficiency to defend our country.

The Cole is indeed impressive, and the technology on today’s military equipment is astounding, but they are nothing but bells and whistles without an outstanding crew to oversee them.  I write about all sorts of topics and meet a wide range of people from many walks of life, but the intense honor and devotion I saw in every sailor on the Cole was truly inspiring.  The crew seemed to take unique pride in what’s called “connected replenishment,” which is one ship resupplying another via a connection called a padeye while both vessels are moving, and clearly no easy task.  I had trouble passing a baton on a relay team and handing off a beer from one moving car to another so two ships at sea is definitely out of my wheelhouse.

As Captain Farrell walked away from us he said, “It’s awesome being in New York!”

It was awesome having you here, Sir.

Manziel’s Magnificent Moxie

Manziel’s Magnificent Moxie

“You’ve got to have an imagination to coach Johnny Football,” said ESPN’s John Gruden on early morning television today.

Most of us have vivid imaginations that help fuel our hopes and dreams, yet we are too often told by friends, relatives, teachers and yes, even strangers, what we can’t achieve.

Johnny Manziel gives me hope.  He makes me want to run – at 58 years old — another 10 K race, or to travel out west this summer and paddle through white water.  I know other people feel the same way because I’ve discussed it at length with friends, as well as fans I’ve met in the gym, on the bus and at sporting events.  He is our David, who battles and defeats the many Goliaths of the sporting world.

There have been endless discussions about whether Manziel can make it in the NFL and I have devoured all of the data from both sides.  Despite the impressive arguments posed by Manziel’s naysayers, they always ignore the intangibles, like heart, or what my mother used to call moxie.  Moxie is defined as force of character, determination, or nerve, and Manziel has plenty of all three.

So many of us want Manziel to succeed, because then we will too.

Please, Johnny – be good.

The Masters: Splendor in the Grass

THE MASTERS: SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS

Most of the small cities and suburban towns in America have a street similar to Washington Road. They are all populated by an endless number of strip malls, motel chains, and every fast food franchise imaginable, except that in Augusta, GA, 2604 Washington Road is the address of the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the historic Masters Golf Tournament.

Augusta National is one of the world’s most exclusive (and restrictive) golf clubs, yet walking distance from Hooters and directly across the street from a CVS Pharmacy, so I was able to purchase sunscreen before I transcended being a mere golf fan or tournament attendee into a Masters “patron.”

Until now, television was the closest I’d come to seeing the Masters and although many friends had told me about the tournament, nothing prepared me for the perfection that is the Augusta National Golf Club. The bright green grass looks as if it’s washed and buffed daily, while the white sand in the bunkers belongs in an hourglass and the trees are surrounded by lush deep brown pine needles so pristine that compared to Augusta, Disneyworld looks sloppy.

The club does not announce gate figures, but it’s estimated that 35,000 people attend the Masters and rather than engaging in any additional research, I spoke with Jon Ehrlich, a New York attorney known to friends and associates as the Masters Maven.

Ehrlich took up golf at age 10 and immediately fell in love with the game. His hero at the time was Arnold Palmer, who won his fourth Masters championship in eight years by 1964, forever instilling in Ehrlich a sense that Augusta was a magical place where dreams are brought to life. “Augusta is a horticultural masterpiece,” said Ehrlich. “It’s an oasis of aesthetic design.” Ehrlich and I also discussed how despite Augusta’s elite membership rules, the Masters is remarkably egalitarian. “It’s not unique to golfing events but given the history of this tournament and club, it offers a distinctive inclusivity – an ability to mingle that’s really striking.”

Other than a clubhouse for members and players there are no private boxes or guarded areas found at other sporting events. During Wednesday’s practice round, I walked up the fairway directly alongside VJ Singh separated only by a thin rope. All of the other patrons I encountered were friendly and engaging, especially a group from Australia who flew in especially for the tournament. I found them literally genuflecting over the spot where Bubba Watson hit his famous hook shot out of the woods in 2012, and they insisted I join them, which I did. If this seems odd, Ehrlich has the answer. “The majority of people who follow professional sports are strictly spectators, while golf fans are unique because no matter what their age may be – from 8 to 80 – many of them regularly play the sport. This provides a unique insight and great respect for the remarkable talent and skill one needs to be a professional golfer.”

It’s not all about worshipping the golf idols. Augusta also has a sense of humor. Using the bathroom at The Masters is very entertaining, thanks to James Marshall, a men’s room attendant who colorfully announces the availability of urinals. “I got one on the back nine and three pulling out on the front five,” Marshall announced as I entered the immaculate lavatory. “Fill ‘em up!” he said repeatedly. Theatrics aside, the lines at bathrooms and concessions all move remarkably fast thanks to the helpful aides.

Outside of the club, everyone else on Washington Road is equally gracious, as my friend Andy and I learned from the staff at Denny’s, who treated us like visiting royalty. Yull Wohlmuth, the Regional VP was visiting from West Palm Beach and he gave us a ride to Wednesday’s practice round in the Denny’s car.

It was better than a limousine.

The name’s Mamet, Clara Mamet

The name’s Mamet, Clara Mamet

Clara Mamet has an old soul.  Something about her reminds me of Mel Brooks and Myron Cohen, except Mamet is 19 years old and has probably never heard of the Ed Sullivan Show, where I was first introduced to their styles of humor.  Nonetheless, Mamet’s the creative force (writer, director and star) behind Two Bit Waltz, a feature film that launched at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17th 2014.

Mamet utilizes both sight gags and cerebral humor like a seasoned sketch comedy writer, employing clever set pieces to cover subjects like death, money and chain smoking.  Throughout the film, Mamet uses toast to exploit a running gag, her wry sense of humor and the deadpan delivery of her actors play the material deftly enough to sustain the joke.  She also has a gag in her psychiatrist’s office that’s really hilarious and when I asked her about it she said, “What do you want to do when you’re at a shrink’s office?  A lot of people don’t want to be there so I figured why not just move the furniture around.  It’s much funnier than cutting back and forth from the patient to the shrink.”

I mentioned a Mel Brooks influence to Mamet, who responded that “Preston Sturges is one of my favorites.  I learned about dialogue and timing from him – louder faster funnier.  But I do love Mel Brooks,” she added.

Sidney Lumet is another influence, having taught Mamet “the importance of less is more” and she considers him her favorite film maker.   Mamet wants to keep making movies and she has five scripts in the pipeline although “all of them are half finished, hopefully one will pop up.”

Mamet’s background may be considered privileged – her parents are David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon – but I found her to be a shy and respectful yet driven young woman, which is a rarity in her age group, which seems to be populated primarily by insouciant hipsters.

Mamet’s certainly ambitious and hardworking and when I asked her for a dream project she mentioned a Bond film without missing a beat.  Mamet has a true gift for humor and I hope she considers an off-beat comedy show before turning twenty one.

 

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