That Cobbler Recipe: The Secret’s In The Sauce

Okay, I guess it serves me right. You can’t post outright food porn — like this photo of the strawberry-rhubarb cobbler I made this afternoon — without having people ask for the recipe.

Now the first thing I have to admit is that this is not a personal recipe, but one that I Googled up last week after I came home from the farmers’ market with peaches and a stalk of rhubarb. It was posted on someone’s blog, called Eat and Run. So thank you, Helen, whoever you are, because I’ve now used this recipe twice and it’s delicious.

Last week's peach and rhubarb cobbler didn't look too shabby either.

There are two especially lovely things about this recipe. One is that it is very simple, and the batter can be used with just about any combination of fruit. Now that I’m haunting farmers’ markets again, I plan to use this recipe with whatever is in season. Fresh local fruit is the best, and it’s worth paying a little upcharge if you have to in order to get it.

The other thing that makes this cobbler version special is this. Lots of cobbler recipes called for simmering the fruit in a sugar syrup to soften it up a bit before it goes in the pan with the batter. Not many recommend a sugar syrup in which the liquid component is bourbon (the author also suggests sherry or brandy as an alternative).

The cooking and baking evaporates the alcohol, and what’s left behind are those trademark features of bourbon: the vanilla and caramel and butterscotch flavors that the whiskey picks up from the wooden barrels in which it ages. It is subtle in the finished cobbler, but it really adds a little something nice.

Anyway, here’s the recipe, almost verbatim from the other blog. Try it and let me know what you think, and if you add some tweaks that make it even better, pass it along.

Ingredients:

For cake -
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons milk

For fruit -
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sherry, brandy, or bourbon
5-5.5 cups of fruit

Directions:

Room temperature the cake ingredients. Soften the butter. Slice the fruits. Grease a 9 x 9 inch square pan or something like that. (As you can see in the photos, I use a 10-inch cast iron pan for this with excellent results.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat together eggs and 1 cup of the sugar. Add butter and milk. Add the flour mixture, stirring just to combine. Pour batter into greased pan.

Preheat oven to 375 farenheit.

In a saucepan, simmer together the sherry and 1/2 cup of sugar for 5 minutes. Add the fruit and stir to coat with the syrup. Let this simmer for 1-2 minutes. Pour this hot fruit mixture over the batter in the pan. (Don’t worry if some of your fruit sinks. Also don’t worry if the mixture is liquidy.)

Bake for 30 minutes.

30 Years Ago At Wrigley, The Day I Fell For Chicago

The famous definition of insanity, credited to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” A cynic might say that’s also the very best definition of a Chicago Cubs fan. Every spring, there is that eternal optimism that this year will be THE year. Except it hasn’t been for an epic 104 years.

But I’d like to offer what may be the second-best definition of baseball insanity: a lifelong baseball fanatic who decided well into middle age to become a devoted Cubs fan. Even though he was more than old enough to know the tragi-comic history that has unfolded on Chicago’s North Side.

Wait, there’s more. Although this fellow long regarded Chicago as his second hometown — because his wife grew up nearby — and has followed the Cubs as a fan since the 1990s, he only moved to the Windy City last July.

Allow me to introduce myself. Because I am that guy.

Ballpark. Cathedral of Baseball. Beloved House of Horrors for Five Generations of Cubs Fans. And the reason I became, defying all reason, a middle-aged fan of baseball's most star-crossed team.

So how did this happen to a reasonably responsible person who committed political journalism in Washington, D.C.,  for 30 years before relocating here?

Part of it almost certainly has to do with the fact that I developed an attachment to the underdog early on, probably when I realized that my devotion to watching sports was way greater than my ability to play them. I became old enough to appreciate baseball growing up in New York in the early 1960s, and could have opted into the dynastic Yankees of Mantle, Ford, Berra and Maris. Instead, I fell madly in love with the New York Mets, the expansion 1962 Mets, with their historically bad 40-120 record.

Yes, I was a Mets fan for a good part of my life. Don’t judge me. And, during my years living in D.C., I rooted for the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals. So you can see where I’m going with this.

But the bigger part was this: Blame it on Wrigley. Chicago ultimately became my favorite city and a place where I wanted to live out my days. But that old ballpark, with the ivy-covered brick walls and hand-operated scoreboard, tucked tightly into the surrounding residential neighborhood, was the first thing I loved about Chicago.

Today, June 3, 2012, will mark the 30th anniversary of the day that my wife Barb (then my girlfriend) and I attended our first game at Wrigley Field. I had, of course, seen the park many times on TV. Yet when I, at age 26, walked up the ramp and caught my first glimpse of the field and its urban backdrop, I had the same kind of epiphany I’d had at age 5 when my parents took me to my first game ever, between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Athletics at Yankee Stadium in 1961. The old-school charms of Wrigley had me hooked, instantly.

The game itself stuck in my mind because San Diego pitcher Juan Eichelberger, who otherwise had a rather brief and undistinguished MLB career, almost pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, coming within a bad call by the home-team official scorer from a place in baseball’s history books. A second-inning grounder, which easily could have been called an error on the second baseman, instead was ruled a hit. It turned out to be the only one the Cubs got that day (though they later scored a run on a three-base error and a sacrifice fly).

The Padres won the game, 3-1, and how they won would be called “foreshadowing” in literature. In the top of the 6th, with the teams tied at zero, the Padres loaded the bases with two out. Batter Joe Lefevbre then lofted a long fly ball that slugging center fielder Leon Durham reached near the wall… then dropped, allowing all three runners to score.

Two years later, the Cubs and Padres would meet in the National League Championship Series, then best of five. The Cubs, after winning the first two games and losing the next two, held a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning in the decisive Game 5 when Durham, then playing first base, allowed an easy grounder to go between his legs, allowing the tying run to score and sparking a four-run rally that sent the Padres, not the Cubs, to the 1984 World Series.

Fast forward to July 17, 2011. Barb and I had just moved a couple of weeks earlier to an apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview, among street names with which I first became familiar years earlier because we used to hunt for parking there when we came in for Cubs games. The game that day was a typically dreary affair, a 7-5 loss to the Florida Marlins, in a season already lost. But I will always remember that day as the first time I got to walk HOME from Wrigley Field. (The Cubs ended up 3-3 with me in the stands last year. Not much, but considering the fact that they were 71-91 overall and 39-42 at home, it practically made me a good luck charm.)

In between were many other memories, including these:

* A game on June 8, 1987, in which the Cubs beat the Mets, 4-2, on a two-run, two-out walk-off 9th inning homer by infielder Manny Trillo, who had a long and effective career but was no one’s idea of a slugger. (I then was still a Mets diehard and would remain so until the early ‘90s, when potential Hall of Famers Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden dissipated their careers through hard living while the team dumped spark plugs like Wally Backman and Len Dykstra and replaced them with clubhouse head-cases like Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen.)

* The Aug. 13, 1993 game, a 4-1 win for San Francisco, in which I sat right behind home plate in seats I’d gotten from a friend of a friend and watched Giants’ star Will Clark slam a foul ball off his knee so hard that he was sidelined for a week.

* The Cubs’ surprise 12-0 skunking of the World Series-bound Atlanta Braves on Aug. 30, 1996, which I attended after covering the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center.

* Sammy Sosa, fresh off his record-setting “home run derby” with the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire in 1998 and still a hometown hero, belting an eighth-inning homer off St. Louis reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to help the Cubs score a 6-3 victory on May 28, 1999. That was, to my recollection, the only time I saw the Cubs play the arch-rival Cards live at Wrigley until I caught an early-season game this year that produced one of the team’s extremely rare come-from-behind 9th inning victories.

* An early-season game on April 11, 2005 — before the Cubs jacked up the ticket prices — when a friend and I walked up prior to the game and got reasonably priced seats three rows behind home plate. I remarked during the game, which the Cubs lost, 1-0, that it was the first time I’d ever felt compelled to say “Down in front” to the batter standing in the on-deck circle.

* And a mild summer day on Aug. 22, 2010, when I had time on my hands, bought a nose-bleed seat in the upper reserved… and ended up watching Lou Piniella’s last game as Cubs manager.

That game, a 16-5 Braves clubbing of the Cubbies, was one of several I’ve attended — including a couple already this year — that challenged the motto I’ve had about Wrigley Field for many years: It is the only stadium I’ve been to where I can watch a really bad game and still feel like it was one of the best days I had that year.

To steal a line from late blues singer Albert King, this Cubs season was born under a bad sign. The Opening Day loss to the Washington Nationals was the first of five Cubs games I've seen this year. They have lost four of them.

The crosstown rival Chicago White Sox celebrate a 6-0 win on May 20 that completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

It very quickly became apparent that this was going to be another one of those years for the Cubs. Their 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on windy, cold April 5 — my first Opening Day game at Wrigley Field — sent the home team off to a 4-12 start. For a couple of weeks, they appeared to turn it around, playing better than .500 baseball. And then… the deluge, a gruesome 12-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep at home by the rival Chicago White Sox.

Yet Cubs fans are holding out an unusual amount of hope for the future. The team’s new president, Theo Epstein, has two World Series championship rings from his recent stint as general manager of another team that long lived under a baseball curse, the Boston Red Sox. If Theo manages to build a winner at 1060 West Addison Street, he will deservedly be hailed as one of Chicago all-time sports legends.

But I’m prepared to grab some of the credit too. After all, the Cubs never went to the World Series when I didn’t live here.

Chicago Summer in the City: Lake Michigan’s Stormy Beauty

There is nothing I find more relaxing that the sound of a gentle surf hitting the shore. Though I lived fairly near the Atlantic Ocean growing up in a northern suburb of New York City and then in my adult life in Washington, D.C., it wasn’t close enough to make a habit of visiting, and the long drives to get there were anything but relaxing. So stumbling into an apartment when we moved to Chicago last year that is just yards from Lake Michigan was truly fortunate, and I take every opportunity I can to sit on a pier or nearby beach to take it all in.

But there is the other side to this Great Lake, the one we are experiencing today, a much-needed rainy day in what has been a very dry spring in Chicago. Peaceful, it isn’t, but it is pretty amazing to watch.

As you can see, when the waves hit the serrated breakwall with sufficient force, it creates natural geysers that put Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain (beautiful though it is) to shame.

The fact that these natural wonders are occurring within the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers is the ultimate hat tip to the founders and planners of this city, who had the foresight to preserve virtually the entire lakefront as open public space.

More photos below. The rain today was ushered in by a cold front. You never know with Chicago weather, but even so, the dropoff from record high temperatures of 97 on Sunday and 94 on Monday to 50 three days later is a bit extreme. Yet even though June is coming in like one of these cats at the Lincoln Park Zoo…

… it’s supposed to be back up well into the 80s next week.

And it’s not like we don’t need the rain, as this cracked earth in Lincoln Park near Belmont Harbor this morning underscores.

The preciptation for the year so far is 8.8 inches, or 5.5 inches below average. Through yesterday (May 30), rainfall for the month was just more than 2 inches or about half the normal rate. So bring it on. Better on Thursday than Saturday!

More lake photos as promised…

The same indentations that cause the crashing waves to turn into geysers also create a cool waterfall effect when the waters recede.

Chicago Summer in the City: Cobbling Together An All-American Holiday Dinner

I am in the process of opening a new avenue in my freelance journalism career that will emphasize personal passions such as food, drink and photography. This makes me wonder if they shopping run I made Monday, to Binny’s (a big Chicago beverage store chain, for those who don’t live here), Best Buy and Trader Joe’s is tax-deductible.

At least I can buy all the eats and drinks and camera equipment I want here on the Third Coast. I worked covering elections in Washington, D.C., for 30 years, and just never amassed the resources I would have needed to buy a politician.

We had a second consecutive day of record-setting heat. After getting the walk by the lake out of the way in the morning before it became too unbearable, I decided to spend some more time outdoors at the rooftop pool, addressing my long-term Vitamin D deficiency. Unfortunately, the stiff breeze at ground level was like gale force more than 400 feet off the ground. Having to deal with turbulence is bad enough when you’re flying, but it’s pretty weird altogether when you are laying on a chaise lounge. Half an hour of that turned out to be quite enough.

Monday, of course, was Memorial Day, a day to remember my father, who passed away at age 90 four years ago. Milton Benenson served in the Army Air Force as a navigator during World War II. He must have been pretty good at it, and he certainly was fortunate, as he flew 36 missions over Nazi-controlled Europe and lived to make, among other things, me. I’m not sure how much of the world is grateful for that latter part, but I am.

I decided this would be a good occasion for an all-American dinner. Cooking out isn’t an option, as our apartments have no balconies, but the wide range of cast-iron cookware that I have provides as close to cookout taste as you can get indoors.

Hot dogs (a brand of all-beef organic franks carried by Trader Joe’s), corn on the cob, onion rings, a homemade peach and rhubarb cobbler, washed down with a mint julep. Hard to get more American than that.

The cobbler is worthy of a close-up, if only because I do a lot more cooking than baking as a norm.

I actually had the more traditional strawberry-rhubarb combo in mind when I hit the farmers’ market on Saturday, but I ended up with a bag of peaches that I bought because I thought it was so unusual to see peaches this early in the year. Also, we ate too many of the strawberries that I brought home to make a cobbler out of them.

Anyway, I found a lovely, easy recipe on the Web that had this added benefit: the syrup in which the fruit is briefly cooked to soften before joining the batter in the oven is made of sugar and… bourbon. The alcohol cooks off, of course, but the bourbon adds a nice little vanilla/butterscotch flavor. You have to trust me, but it came out great. And since the instructions say the batter can be the base to any combination of fruit, I need not worry too much about going overboard at the farmers’ markets this summer.

This looks like as good a place as any to catch up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown. According to Weather Underground…

Saturday, May 19: Chicago Midway reported a high of 91, a low of 64, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 56 and no rain. The 90s, for me, are a bit too hot. Point D.C.

Sunday, May 20: Chicago Midway reported a high of 92, a low of 65, and .14 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 59 and .01 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, May 21: Chicago Midway reported a high of 65 — yep, a quick transition back to spring — a low of 54 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 66 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 68, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .01 of an inch of rain. Having experienced a lot of days in the 80s in D.C. that felt like they were in the 90s, I’ll give that one to Chicago.

Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .33 of an inch rain. That’s a lot of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 90, a low of 65, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 69 and a trace of rain. Edge D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 80, a low of 67, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 63, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago, too.

Sunday, a record-setting sizzler as Chicago Midway reported a high of 97, a low of 73, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 87, a low of 70 and .05 of an inch of rain. We’ll give this one to D.C.

That brings the overall score to 162-135 in favor of D.C.

Chicago Summer In The City: Come On, Let Your Colors Burst

No matter how booster-ish you are about your hometown, there is one thing about Chicago that brooks no argument. This city knows how to do summer. Take for instance, Saturday night’s fireworks display over Navy Pier — seen in the photos below — that marked the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer. Now this would have been fun enough if it had been a one-off. But instead, every Saturday and Wednesday night between now and Labor Day (weather permitting), we will be able to look out the window of our apartment five miles away and see… this.

We happened to arrive in Chicago on a Wednesday when we moved here last year, totally oblivious to the Navy Pier’s schedule. Since almost all of our belongings were on a van taking the scenic route around the Northeast, we were sitting in the only furniture in the living room — a pair of those canvas folding chairs that you take to picnics and outdoor concerts — when suddenly… fireworks!

It reminded me of the final scene in Barry Levinson’s movie “Avalon,” about a first-generation Jewish family in Baltimore, which ends with a flashback of the now-elderly patriach arriving on a boat on July 4, 1914, and disembarking under a mantle of fireworks. Even under the far less dramatic circumstances of our move to Chicago, it was quite a welcome!

The way in which Chicago comes to life when the weather warms was one of the first things that struck me during one of my early family visits with Barb, as this city started to exert would became a magnetic pull.

We arrived in town, appropriately enough, on Memorial Day, and it had been one of those years in which winter’s chill had only reluctantly released its grip more than halfway through spring. We meandered down Lake Shore Drive and got off at Fullerton, smack in the middle of Lincoln Park, and sat for a while in a traffic jam made up mainly of people headed to the zoo and the nearby beaches. And we noticed that there were people everywhere. Walking, running, rollerblading, biking, with many of them wearing as little clothing as they could get away with.

Now the Drive and the park are practically in my “front yard” and I am alternately writing this and staring out the window at the lake, liberally dotted with sailboats and motorboats and jet-skis. I’ve got issues, like everyone else, but I’d really have to try in order to be unhappy here.

So I’ve decided to add a feature to the blog that I’m calling Chicago’s Summer in the City. Yes, borrowed from the song released in 1966 by the Lovin’ Spoonful. I’m sure I could have strained to come up with something more original than that, but seriously, when you’re writing about summer in the city, why bother?

Along with the fireworks, the last signs of spring verging on summer have fallen into place. Our rooftop pool is open for the season, as are the Chicago Trapeze School, located at the south end of Belmont Harbor near our apartment, and Fullerton Street Beach, a pop-up place that serves wood-smoked barbecue at a spot yards from the lake. And this city known for its street festivals held its first one this weekend. Next weekend, I’ll be attending Sausage Fest (yes, I know this is a double entendre) outside Wrigley Field, because the food sounds great, of course, but also because it is a fundraiser to fight prostate cancer, something with which I’ve had an unfortunate acquaintance.

My wife Barb has been incredibly busy with family matters since we moved, so we’re determined to make this the Summer of Barb (and to make it more successful that the Summer of George on the old Seinfeld show). So the fireworks show last night was the nightcap of our Summer of Barb kickoff.

First, I made breakfast: scrambled eggs with light havarti cheese, sauteed ham and red peppers. I popped over to the recently opened Saturday farmers’ market a few blocks away at the Nettlehorst School, where I picked up some local lettuce, asparagus, strawberries, cherries, peaches, green onions, cheese (including some Cajun-flavored cheese curds – yes, we live close to Wisconsin) and a bag of dandy pretzel rolls. Everything is delicious, though getting peaches and cherries this early kind of raises my worries about the whole global warming thing.

Then Barb and I took the short bus ride to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Unlike today, with temperatures in the mid-90s, yesterday was actually a bit on the cool side. Nonetheless, we made a mental note to come earlier in the day next time, because most of the animals were pretty lazy. I love watching the big cats. But the tiger, while a magnificent and potentially terrifying beast, is a cat, after all, and here’s a photo of one taking a midday snooze.

The lion was awake, but not exactly active either.

One exception was the jaguar, spending the afternoon indoors and gnawing on a bone with great determination to extract every last bit of meat.

The ducks, at least, were alert, but they don’t seem to care much what the weather is like.

After the zoo, we made a short visit to the nearby Notebaert Nature Center, then home, where I fixed a dinner of barbecue-sauced tri-tip roast beef with roasted asparagus and a salad made up mostly of stuff I’d gotten at the farmers’ market (including a cranberry cheddar that’s already on next week’s shopping list). My (successful) cocktail experiment for the evening was a Hemingway daiquiri with Death’s Door white whiskey from Wisconsin subbing for the white rum. Then bloody marys and fireworks.

Not a bad first day of summer. More adventures to come. I hope you’ll come back and join me.

White Sox 6, Cubs 0: Even The Seagulls Are Giving Cubs The Bird

There was a true highlight for longtime Chicago Cubs fans today during their team’s series-ending game with the crosstown rival White Sox. Unfortunately, it occurred during the 7th inning stretch, when 69-year-old Ferguson Jenkins — a Hall of Fame pitcher who starred for the Cubs from 1966 to 1972 and played for the team again 1982-83 — led the crowd in the ritual singing of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The struggling 2012 version of the Cubs did not have nearly as good a day as Fergie did. The Cubs lost 6-0, squandering the few chances they had to score while the Sox jumped on their opportunities — which included home runs by Gordon Beckham, Adam Dunn and Tyler Flowers, the first two hit back to back starting the 4th inning to break what had been a scoreless tie.

The Cubs’ loss enabled the White Sox to sweep the three-game series at Wrigley (the teams meets again for three games at U.S. Cellular Field, aka Sox Park, June 18-20) and scratch their way back to a .500 record at 21-21. Nothing much to write home about, but mediocrity looks pretty awesome here on the North Side of town.

The Cubs have now lost five in a row, all at home. And after seeming for a few weeks to move in the right direction toward reversing their atrocious 4-12 season start, they have backslid to a record of 15-26, the worst in the National League.

It has gotten so bad that the Cubs can’t even get respect from the local seagulls. These scavengers like to invade the ballpark in search of scraps of leftover food, but they usually wait until the game is over and the players and the crowds have cleared. Not so today, when center field was invaded in the bottom of the 9th inning by a flock of seagulls. No, not the 1980s rock group who sang, “I Ran So Far Away.” A real flock of seagulls…

With the deeply slumping Cubs at the plate, the birds legitimately had little worry that they would be hit with a batted ball. And they were not.

The Cubs have certainly had plenty of bad weeks over the years, and this was one of them. I’m sure Tom Ricketts, seen here mingling with fans today as he has been wont to do since he and his super-wealthy family bought the team prior to the 2010 season, thought it would be cool to run a major league baseball team, and it probably is most of the time. But this was not one of those weeks.

Ricketts, in the blue long-sleeved shirt and khakis, schmoozing with fans behind home plate.

First, the Cubs came home for their short five-game stand, and lost the first game to the Philadelphia Phillies (another game that I attended). The Cubs actually took a 2-1 lead with one out in the 4th on a two-run homer by Alfonso Soriano… then did not get another base runner for the entire remainder of the game: 17 up, 17 down. A good starting performance by Matt Garza kept the game close through seven, but the Phils took a 3-2 lead in the 8th, and then blew the game open against the bullpen with six runs in the 9th for a 9-2 win.

The Cubs then got splashed with the controversy that broke out with publication in the New York Times of a leaked proposal, produced for a “Super PAC” founded by Joe Ricketts, Tom Ricketts’ father, who established the family’s fortune as founder of the Ameritrade investment firm. The proposal involved running inflammatory negative ads against President Obama during this year’s election campaign.

Joe Ricketts quickly disowned the plan and Tom Ricketts said he and his team have nothing to do with politics. But the flap put at serious risk any hopes the ownership had of persuading the city of Chicago to kick in nine figures worth of taxpayers’ dollars to help renovate Wrigley Field, an iconic ballpark that is nearly a century old and badly in need of an overhaul.

This is in part because the city is run by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff to Obama, who was said by the local press to be livid about the reported ad proposal, and in part because the ball team the Rickettses bought happens to be located in a heavily Democratic section of one of the nation’s most heavily Democratic-voting city, which also happens to be Obama’s hometown. Can you say faux pas?

The Cubs then lost again to the Phillies, 8-7, with a four-run 9th inning rally falling one run short, amid reports that star-crossed Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, off to a terrible start this season, planned to retire after pitching in one last game at Wrigley. That occurred at the opening of the Sox series Friday when Wood came in as a reliever, struck out the only batter he faced, then called it a career.

Kerry Wood on the mound during the Cubs' Opening Day game April 5 against the Washington Nationals. Though Wood pitched decently in relief last season, he struggled immediately this year. Entering that game with one out and one on in the 8th and the Cubs leading 1-0, Wood walked three batters in a row to force in the tying run.

Wood’s last hurrah was one of those moments of pure baseball magic. He walked off to a standing ovation from the crowd, with the White Sox players applauding along with his Cubs teammates. Wood’s little son ran onto the field from the Cubs dugout to embrace him. Wood went into the dugout, then re-emerged to tip his hat to the crowd.

But it also was a bittersweet moment, a reminder of great athletic promise derailed by injuries. Wood came up with the Cubs at age 20 in 1998 and set the baseball world on fire in his fifth start, at Wrigley against the Houston Astros, in which he struck out a record-tying 20 batters while pitching a one-hit shutout — regarded by some experts as the greatest one-game pitching performance in major league baseball’s history. But after going 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings, Wood turned up injured during spring training the next year and needed the elbow ligament replacement known as Tommy John surgery.

Wood came back and had a few more good years, especially in 2003, the year the Cubs almost got to the World Series, in which he had a modest record of 14-11 but led the major leagues in strikeouts with 266. But more injuries and more trips to the disabled list  led to a sharp decline. By 2007, he was a full-time reliever. He had some success as a closer for the Cubs in 2008 and for the Cleveland Indians in 2009,  and pitched very well during an end-of-season stint with the New York Yankees in 2010.

He was just okay, though, in his return to the Cubs last year, and he got off to such a poor start this year — 0-2 record, 8.31 earned run average, 11 walks to just six strikeouts in 8 and two-thirds innings — that he uncharacteristically lost his temper, threw his glove and hat into the stands after a brief rough outing on May 8, and cursed at a reporter who brought it up after the game.

And as you already have figured out, the Cubs lost Wood’s last game to the White Sox, 3-2, then lost on Saturday 7-4 (scoring all of their runs on a pair of two-run homers in the bottom of the 9th), and then got blanked Sunday with the win going to Jake Peavy, a former ace for the San Diego Padres who is making a strong comeback after a couple of injury-plagued seasons with the Sox.

The Cubs now go on the road for three games each against Houston and the Pittsburgh Pirates, both sub-.500 NL Central teams who they must be better than if they are going to escape last place this season.

Here are some additional photos from Sunday’s game.

Cubs starter Pat Maholm deals the first pitch to Alejandro De Aza of the White Sox. Maholm, obtained from Pittsburgh during the off-season, had been one of the Cubs' most successful pitchers of late, but three loud homers Sunday contributed to a five-run, nine-hit performance over 6-1/3 innings.

Gordon Beckham, the Sox' second baseman, has struggled at the plate this season, batting .207, and he grounded out to short in his first at-bat.

But leading off the 4th in a scoreless tie, Beckham blasted a long home run just inside the left field foul pole. With another round-tripper he hit on Friday, Beckham now has half of his four homers for the season at Wrigley.

White Sox slugger Adam Dunn then made it back-to-back by connecting with this mighty swing for his 14th homer this season. Dunn is looking so far like a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. After leaving the Washington Nationals -- where he'd hit 38 homers each in consecutive seasons and batted better than .260 -- and signing a big free-agent contract with the Sox, Dunn had a disastrous 2011 debut in Chicago, hitting .159 with just 11 homers and 42 rbi. Over 42 games this year, Dunn already has topped last year's hr total by three, has 32 rbi and is batting .247.

Wrigley Field's famous hand-operated scoreboard tells a tale sad but all too common for Cubs fans.

 

 

Spring in Chicago: A Long, Long Walk For Asparagus

After the chilly weather of April that stretched into the early part of May, it looks like spring has finally arrived for real. Chicago had an official high temperature of 90 today, a first this year, though — as the name of this blog reminds — it was cooler by the lake shore.

Signs of spring are all over. The air conditioning, thank goodness, has been turned on in our apartment building. The rooftop pool likely is a week away from opening, but the deck is open. Here what Wrigley Field looked like this afternoon, through the haze and the scratchy plexiglass that is there to prevent the kind of bad things that can happen when you’re hanging out on a roof 400 feet off the ground.

There is lots of baseball (this photo taken Wednesday night at the game between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies), most of it bad, but that unfortunately is also a sure sign of spring in Chicago.

The boats are back in on the lake…

… and so are the birds.

And now, the farmers’ markets around the city are opening up. Possibly the best known is the Green City market, located at the south end of Lincoln Park (the actual park, not the neighborhood), and since I never got there after we moved last summer, I wanted to make a point of getting there early to check it out this year.

I also have a few pounds accumulated from the winter and the sedentaries associated with a big writing project I am just wrapping up, and since I’d already taken some pretty good strolls, I figured I’d walk down there and earn the barbecue brisket dinner I’d put on the menu for tonight.

I did, because it’s kind of a long walk. Two and a half miles, according to my best GoogleMaps estimate.

I can see this market is going to be a very big deal as the growing season progresses. For right now, it’s still mid-May in the Upper Midwest, and produce was a bit scarce.

I don’t regret the trek because I need the exercise, it was a beautiful day and there was little reason for concern that the NATO protestors would make a priority of Occupying Lincoln Park. Still, under normal circumstances, that would be a pretty long walk for a couple of pounds of asparagus, a bag of spring mix lettuce and a couple of containers of admittedly delicious feta cheese from (guess where) Wisconsin.

They did have stands selling fresh local meats and fish, though I decided that I needed cold packs for that given the temperature pushing 90. I will remember that for the future, because truthfully, when you’re walking that far on a hot day, cold packs are not a bad thing to have.

I will be back, for sure. But on the bus ride home (no, I didn’t do the five-mile round trip on foot), I passed what looked like a thriving farmers’ market in a schoolyard just a few blocks from where we live. For the next few weeks, at least until there’s a bigger choice of produce to be had, I think I’ll stick to the market closer to home.

By the way, the brisket, seared on the stovetop, then slow roasted in the oven with a late slathering of barbecue sauce, was delicious. I served it with a home-concocted version of elote, a corn dish that is a Mexican street food and which I first sampled at the White Sox ballpark when we attended the game last Tuesday. Nothing fancy about it: corn (on or off the cob) seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, a little mayonnaise, lime juice, and if you like (and I do) a sprinkling of chili powder. Comfort food to the max, and totally addictive.

I’ve gotten way behind on the Cooler on the Lakeshore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown, so I guess this is as good a place as any to catch up. According to Weather Underground…

On Wednesday, May 9: Chicago Midway reported a high of 60, a low of 46, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 59 and .58 of an inch of rain. That’s a lot of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, May 10, Chicago Midway reported a high of 65, a low of 45, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 70, a low of 56 and no rain. Virtual tie, but edge to D.C.

Friday, May 11, Chicago Midway reported a high of 78, a low of 48, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 52 and no rain. Point Chicago.

Saturday, May 12 Chicago Midway reported a high of 67, a low of 51, and .25 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 78, a low of 52 and no rain. Point D.C.

Last Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 69, a low of 53, and and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 80, a low of 62 and no rain. Beautiful day in Chicago, but to be fair, point D.C.

Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 78, a low of 46, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 62 and .24 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 84, a low of 56, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 79, a low of 67 and 1.22 inches of rain. Easy one for Chicago.

Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 52, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 62 and no rain. Point D.C.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 71, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 77, a low of 61 and no rain. Edge D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 85, a low of 57, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 76, a low of 55 and no rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago.

That brings the overall score to 158-130 in favor of D.C.

 

A Day Of Weather, Baseball, Barb, Beer and Books: My Life In A Nutshell

I have a pretty wide range of interests and keep myself very busy pursuing them. But it’s rare for me to pack quite as many different elements into a single day as I did yesterday. There was weather wonkiness and baseball, both experienced with Barb at U.S. Cellular Field, where we ate some pretty decent ballpark food and got to spend time with a Michigan State friend. Then in the evening, I attended an event staged by the ChicagoSide sports website featuring Jim Abbott, whose new autobiography focuses on his inspiring success at overcoming a significant disability to star as a baseball pitcher in the 1980s and ’90s. Craft-brewed beer was consumed at both venues.

Add in a couple of purring sessions by Gracie the Cat, and I think you’ve pretty much got my life in a nutshell.

Tuesday happened to be Weather Day at the stadium with the tongue-twisting name that I prefer to call Sox Park. The featured speaker was Tom Skilling, the popular veteran chief meteorologist for WGN television here in Chicago.

Although Barb likes baseball and grew up south of Chicago as a White Sox fan, there usually has to be a persuasive reason for her to actually attend a game. The presence of Tom Skilling — of whom we are both fans and on whose forecasts we relied for years in planning our many trips to and from Chicago — was justification enough.

Skilling did a talk, accompanied by videos played on the outfield Jumbotron, about how everyone in the Midwest needs to be aware of the destructive capacity of tornadoes, and warned that while twisters are rare within the city of Chicago, they can occur.

The audience was mainly young children on class trips, and we were among the few adults who were not either teachers or chaperones. That made the event even more fun, though, as long lines of kids queued up to ask Skilling some really bright questions. It was clear that these students had been well prepared for this weather chat.

Now before the event started, Barb availed herself of the opportunity to have her photo taken with Southpaw, the team’s mascot. It’s not quite clear what Southpaw is, but when the team name is the White Sox, the options for a more literal-minded mascot are pretty limited.

One thing we quickly learned, though, is that Southpaw is incredibly fickle.

U.S. Cellular Field, opened in 1991, lacks the charm of ancient Wrigley Field on the North Side (to say the least), but its seats are more comfortable, the sightlines for the game are decent, and the food at this ballpark lives up to its reputation as being among one of the best in major league baseball. We both had hearty barbecue sandwiches (one brisket, the other pulled pork) with kettle chips, and enjoyed one of Sox park’s more esoteric treats: elote, a Mexican street food made up of fresh cooked corn kernels stripped off the cob and flavored with butter, mayo, lime juice, salt and chili powder. As good as the sandwiches were, I could seriously eaten that elote all day.

This was washed down by an excellent Mad Hatter IPA from the New Holland brewery in Holland, Michigan. One area in which Sox Park has it all over Wrigley is in its offerings of Midwest microbrews.

We were joined for a couple of innings by Courtney Cawley, one of my colleagues on the board of the Michigan State alumni club of Chicago, who works at U.S. Cellular Field for its  catering company, Levy Restaurants. I mention this mainly to provide a shameless plug. Courtney is a planner who stages great events at the ballpark’s restaurant facilities, so if you have a conference, wedding, bar mitzvah or other big to-do coming up, contact her.

Now as far as the ballgame itself… my favorite kind of game is well-pitched and played at a crisp pace. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s game, which ended with a 10-8 victory for the visiting Detroit Tigers, was anything but that.

The White Sox actually built a 6-0 lead after five innings as Tigers starter Max Scherzer, who is off to a rough start this season, continued his struggles, throwing 99 pitches before he was pulled two batters into the Chicago 5th. Here the Sox have the bases loaded in the first inning, shortly before veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski singled home Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham with the game’s first two runs.

Sox batting star Paul Konerko, who is leading off first base in the photo, was left stranded that inning, but took matters into his own hands in the 3rd by belting a home run, his seventh in a season in which he has a sparkling .344 batting average.

The Sox might have felt confident, and perhaps a bit overconfident, with the 6-0 lead they built, since their starting pitcher was Jake Peavy, the one-time ace of the San Diego Padres who had been making a smart comeback early this season after struggling with injuries during his first two seasons after being obtained by the Sox. But Peavy, who weaved his way out of trouble at times earlier in the game suddenly lost it in the 6th…in which the Tigers piled on eight runs to take the lead.

It started innocently enough with a single by the Tigers’ Andy Dirks, but then slugger Miguel Cabrera broke the ice with a bomb of a home run deep into the left-field bleachers.

After a double by prize free-agent acquisition Prince Fielder, Peavy got a ground out, but then hit Brennan Boesch with a pitch. That set up the moment that showed the wheels had totally fallen off, as Tigers second baseman Ryan Raburn — sporting a batting average in the .140s with no home runs and two runs batted in on the season — blasted a three-run homer to dead centerfield to make the score 6-5. Peavy was left in to face one more batter, Jhonny Peralta… who he made his second Hit By Pitch of the inning.

While many in the stands scratched their heads about why first-year manager Robin Ventura left the fading Peavy in for so long, the subsequent performance by journeyman reliever Will Ohman may have provided an unfortunate explanation. Ohman continued the bizarre sequence by hitting the first batter he faced, pinch-hitter Delmon Young. He then squandered the little that was left of the Sox’ lead by surrendering a three-run home run to Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson, the fifth of what has been a breakout season for him so far.

Ohman finally put this fire out, but started another in the 7th inning by putting two runners on with one out. Singles by Raburn and Peralta plated the Tigers’ final two runs of the game.

The Sox did manage to make it interesting by scoring two runs in the bottom of the 9th on a two-out double by shortstop Alexei Ramirez that brought home Konerko and Pierzynski and put the potential tying runs on second and third. But a flyout to right by Dayan Viciedo ended a long and frustrating afternoon for the Sox.

The win brought the Tigers, struggling to justify their pre-season hype as the prohibitive favorite to win the American League Central, back to .500 at 18-18, two games behind surprise division leader Cleveland. The Sox were 17-20, in third place, three and a half games behind the Indians.

I’ll follow up with some words about Tuesday night’s Jim Abbott event, but I’ve got to go now…. so I can stroll over to Wrigley Field for tonight’s game between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.

I do love me some baseball.

The Lake Shore View: No Place Like Home To Write A Tome

Sorry that the blog has been a bit sluggish lately. I’ve been writing… and writing… and writing for the past month on a lengthy analysis (for CQ Press) of Campaign 2012 so far, and how we got here. I filed the second and final draft today. It clocked in at a mere 17,000 words. And no, that’s not a typo.

At least none of the nice weather we’re supposed to get by now was wasted while I was crashing on deadline, as we had a week that pretty much was unrelenting clouds and rain and fog. And as I wrapped up this monster project today, it looked like I was just in time for spring.

Gracie the Cat seemed to be enjoying the clear view from her perch 300 feet above Chicago.

I’m off Thursday morning for a couple of days at Michigan State, where I will attend my good friend Marc Rehmann’s law school graduation on Friday. Back to Chicago on Saturday, and I’ll try to report then on my adventures.

In the meantime, we’ve gotten way behind again on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown, so we’ll catch up here. According to Weather Underground…

Last Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 78, a low of 60, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 74, a low of 58 and .02 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 86, a low of 69, and .07 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 56 and a trace of rain. That was actually too hot for Chicago this time of year, especially since the central a/c still isn’t on. Point D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 72, a low of 51, and .27 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 65 and .12 of an inch of rain. A bit more rain in Chicago, but that’s pretty hot and muggy in D.C. So we’ll give this one to Chicago.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 53, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 64 and a trace of rain. One of the more springlike days in Chicago, so we’ll take it.

Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 73, a low of 54, and and .40 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 72, a low of 61 and a trace of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 61, a low of 54, and .04 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 57 and no rain. Point D.C..

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 70, a low of 51, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 61 and .03 of an inch of rain. Pretty close to a tie, and ties go to Chicago.

That brings the overall score to 153-125 in favor of D.C.

Storm Photos: Gotta Work On Those Lightning-Fast Reflexes

Our weather here in Chicago has been pretty crummy lately, with most of the past few days interrupted by rain, including some pretty hefty thunderstorms. On the other hand, this has given me an opportunity to feed my latest obsession, which is trying to catch lightning, if not in a bottle, then at least with my camera.

I have managed, though patience and a bigger portion of dumb luck, to capture a few lightning bolts in still photos. But this dandy Sony NEX-3 camera I have also takes HD-quality video, so I decided during last night’s storms to see what I could catch with that. The results are pretty interesting.

The following are stills captured from the videos I took. Most of the lightning while I was at this was cloud to cloud…

… but I did manage to capture this bolt from the black…

The problem with capturing lightning is, of course, that it comes and is gone in a flash. In this sequence, the sky is dark…

…. then is totally ablaze with white light five one-hundredth of a second later…

…. but this faux-daylight is gone in one-hundredth of a second, replaced again in very short order with complete darkness.

I plan to keep working on this. This being Chicago weather, I am sure that I will have ample opportunities.