The Lake Shore View: On Little Cat Feet

I’ve gotten way behind on the Cooler on the Lakeshore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown. But catching up gives me an excuse to repost this photo I took Tuesday night of fog creeping in off Lake Michigan.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
– Carl Sandburg

After a much-too-chilly April, the temperature today finally crept back into the 80s. One more very warm day tomorrow, then a gradual decline into the 60s. But it looks like we may at last be escaping that meat-locker weather that made my first visits to Wrigley Field this year such an endurance test.

Here’s the Smackdown. Hopefully some prettier days to photograph soon, which will encourage me to keep up better. According to Weather Underground…

On Sunday, April 22, Chicago Midway reported a high of 51, a low of 42, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 57, a low of 46 and 1.27 inches of rain. That’s a lot of rain! Point Chicago.

Monday, April 23: Chicago Midway reported a high of 58, a low of 36, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 50, a low of 42 and .10 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, April 24: Chicago Midway reported a high of 64, a low of 38, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 42 and no rain. Point Chicago, for good behavior.

Wednesday, April 25: Chicago Midway reported a high of 62, a low of 50, and .05 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 71, a low of 44 and no rain. Point D.C.

Last Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 55, a low of 39, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 65, a low of 56 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 52, a low of 39, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 48 and no rain. Point D.C.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 50, a low of 44, and .20 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 56, a low of 45 and .12 of an inch of rain. Pretty crummy both places, but a little worse in Chicago.

Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 58, a low of 44, and and .11 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 71, a low of 46 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 51, and .39 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 67, a low of 50 and no rain. Point D.C..

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 64, a low of 52, and .32 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 60 and .15 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

So a nice start for Chicago went south in a hurry. D.C. leads overall 150-121.

A Green-Letter Weekend: Spartan Pride and Sadness

Life sometimes comes at us fast and furiously. I will long remember this weekend for some of the highest highs I’ve experienced in a while, tempered by low lows that made my heart ache.

Late Saturday night, I returned home from a cocktail fundraiser to assist families dealing with childhood cancer — staged in part by friends who I know through my Michigan State alumni activities — when I received official notification of one of the fondest honors that has ever been bestowed upon me. I have been chosen to serve a two-year term on the national Michigan State University Alumni Association’s 35-member international advisory board.

Though I’d actually been tipped off a few days earlier about this election, the email notice pleased me immensely. That is because I learned that the roster of new and returning members includes several people who already are personal friends, some classmates who I have known for almost four decades, others younger people (born well after I graduated from State in 1977) who I have gotten to known through club activities in Chicago and my old hometown of Washington, D.C. And there are others who have become “virtual” friends through my vigorous engagement in social media.

Just by coincidence, I had earlier on Saturday received the honor of being elected to a two-year term on the board of the MSU Alumni Association of Metro Chicago, aka Chicago Spartans, to which I was appointed to fill a vacancy not long after we arrived in this amazing city. The fact that I will be able to serve my alma mater both locally and nationally — and that this was confirmed on the same day — is something of which I am tremendously proud.

I may have taxed the patience of some of my friends with how I’ve gone on about my devotion to Michigan State, but I think I now have sufficient evidence that it is as deep as I have previously suggested, and that it’s not just about the success of our football and basketball teams. MSU welcomed me when I was still 17 years old, it provided my first home away from my home in a New York City suburb, allowed me to talk about sports and other matters on radio for four years, and helped me develop the confidence that led to a fair amount of achievement as a political journalist during my D.C. days. All that, and the bonus of friendships that have lasted almost a lifetime.

I have always tried to help out what we’ve come to know as Spartan Nation in whatever ways I could, but this is the most tangible opportunity I’ve had to give something back. My term begins July 1, and I can’t wait to get started.

On top of this, I finished my fourth round of guitar classes Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Each eight-week term ends with a revue in which each class gets on stage in the main theater and performs a piece of music. And so I, along with teacher Carlos Chacon and my two classmates, performed “Summer Breeze,” a sweet tune from the 1970s group Seals and Crofts. While I don’t think a recording contract is in the immediate future, we played and sang and people in the audience — including my wife Barb — applauded. Not bad for an old guy.

I appreciate how blessed I am to have so many positive things going on in my life, because  like anyone else, there’s bad stuff too, and sometimes it’s right around the corner.

On Friday, I was at a luncheon downtown when I checked my iPhone and saw some cryptic messages on Facebook urging prayers for Rachel Kahan, with whom I’d served briefly on the board of the MSU alumni club of Washington, D.C. I knew that Rachel had been bravely fighting cancer for the past year, but the last I’d heard was that it was in remission, so I was stunned to learn that her situation had taken a turn for the worse… so dire, in fact, that by the time I arrived home, I learned that she had passed away.

Rachel was 26 years old. Life can be beautiful, but it can be cruel and unfair, too. It still is hard for me to comprehend this.

Then, today, I learned that a friend, the wife of a close friend of many, many years, is dealing with the recurrence of a cancer that she has fought off before. In this case, there is much reason for hope: a small tumor, caught early, she is getting the best in medical care, and she will, without exaggeration, have the well wishes of thousands of people. Still, it is another hardship for someone who deserves so much better.

As a cancer survivor myself, I learned a long time ago to appreciate the good things and endure the bad things that occur regularly and often quite randomly. It is helpful knowledge to have on a weekend that delivered such extremes of happiness and sadness.

 

Cubs 3, Cardinals 2: Staying Until The Better End

The Chicago Cubs on Monday night were one strike away from tormenting me with their third 2-1 loss in the three games I have attended so far this season at Wrigley Field. Though the Cubs had the potential tying run on 3rd base and the potential winning run in scoring position on 2nd, the situation wasn’t promising.

On the mound for the Cards was closer Jason Motte, a fire-balling right-hander who had saves in all three of his previous opportunities this April. At the plate for the Cubs was backup third baseman Joe Mather, a journeyman (and former Cardinal) who has played nearly seven times more games in the minors than the majors during his 12-year professional career.

After taking the first two pitches for strikes, Mather battled the count to 2-2. And then this happened…

…. and then this happened…

Mather made solid contact and drove the ball up the middle, well out of reach of any of the Cardinals’ infielders. Bryan LaHair and Geovany Soto raced around with the decisive runs that gave the North Siders a 3-2 win.

The victory, the Cubs’ first walk-off win this season, was made sweeter by the fact that it came against the archrival St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series champions. It didn’t instantly erase the fact that the Cubs are off to an awful start to the 2012 season, with a record of 5 wins and 12 losses, or that they still are in last place in the National League Central Division, 6 games behind first-place St. Louis (11-6).

Still, for one night, a clutch hit by an unexpected hero gave fans who had endured yet another chilly April game a chance to sing the team’s victory anthem, “Go Cubs Go.”

Apart from Mather’s game-winning hit, the game’s most important at-bat is not something that will jump out of the box score. LaHair, whose .361 average makes him one of the few Chicago hitters who is not struggling in the early going, had the night off as the regular first baseman because he bats left and the Cardinals started tough left-hander Jaime Garcia. Batting as a pinch-hitter with one out and none on in the 9th, LaHair worked out a walk on a 3-2 pitch by Motte.

But the reason LaHair was able to stroll to first base was that he engaged in a classic, 12-pitch battle with Motte, fouling off six consecutive fastballs with the count full before drawing ball four on a 98 mile per hour heater. Although Soto, the Cubs’ starting catcher, is struggling mightily at the plate — batting .128 with one home run and one run batted in over 13 games played — Motte walked him on four pitchers. Pinch hitter Steve Clevenger grounded out to first, but the runners moved into scoring position, another key “little thing” that made a big difference in the outcome.

Until the winning rally, the highlight of the game may have been this…

…. the flags hanging limply on a virtually breeze-less night. Compared to the two previous games I attended, when gales blowing off Lake Michigan turned Wrigley into a walk-in freezer, it was almost comfortable Monday night. Almost.

The Cubs grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first with a small-ball rally made up of infield hits by Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro, and a sacrifice fly by Alfonso Soriano.

Castro legs out a single in the 1st inning.

Matt Garza, the Cubs’ pitching ace, threw well enough to win, giving up just four hits and three walks in seven innings. But unfortunately, two of the hits — an infield single by Skip Schumaker and a double down the left-field line by Matt Holliday — put runners on second and third with no one out in the 4th.

The Cardinals didn’t exactly bring out the heavy lumber, but a slow groundout to the right side of the infield and a sacrifice fly were enough to cash in the runners and give the Cards a one-run lead that held up almost to the end of the game.

Almost.

A Short, Pleasant Trip To Journeyman Distillery

Expanding my knowledge about the growing number of craft distillers in the Midwest is one of my little passions. And I learned enough about Journeyman — a promising producer that opened for business last October — at Chicago Whisky Fest in March that I decided it would definitely worth the 80-mile drive to visit the distillery.

The trip Barb and I took Friday to Three Oaks, a tiny town in southwestern Michigan just a few miles over the Indiana border, would have been a pleasure just for the opportunity to spend an hour or so chatting with Bill Welter. The youthful founder and owner of Journeyman, Welter lived in Scotland for a couple of years to pursue his passion for golf and came back with a passion for making whisky.

Welter at the tasting bar with Journeyman's current line of gin, vodka, rum and whisky.

He also came back with a vision and a plan. Through a cooperative arrangement with Koval, a pioneering microdistillery in Chicago, Welter apprenticed while producing a small batch of rye whisky that he labeled Ravenswood (after the neighborhood in Chicago in which Koval is located). That is why Welter had a barrel-aged whisky to sell when Journeyman opened its doors to the public last fall, along with the unaged clear spirits, such as gin, vodka and white whiskey, that are the typical entry points for start-up distilleries.

There is a dedication to quality that shines through in each of the products we sampled (in appropriate taster-sized portions, because we also had to drive the 80 miles back to Chicago that afternoon). The wheat, rye and corn that are the major grains used here are organic; much of it is sourced from Michigan, and most of it comes from somewhere relatively nearby in the Midwest. The grain — including the 10 tons of wheat that was being noisily delivered during our visit — is ground on-site in a device that looks a bit like a mini wood chipper…

And the fermenters and stills are top of the line, new, German-made equipment.

All spirits come out of the still as clear liquid. Those that are intended to be brown liquor, such as aged whisky and dark rum, spend time in barrels like those in the following photo.

The Journeyman site also was designed to be a destination as well as a factory. The bar is open weekend evenings, serving designer cocktails, with a food menu to be added soon. And even if you don’t take a tour, you can get a good sense of how booze is made, as the distillery and barrel racks are in full view through floor-to-ceiling glass.

Journeyman products are currently in limited distribution at the distillery and at retail shops and bars in Michigan, Chicago and northwest Indiana. If you happen to run across a bottle and want to see how their craft-distilled product compares to what you’re used to drinking, it is definitely worth a try.

The Lake Shore View: July in March. March in April. Et Tu, May?

It’s a sunny day in Chicago, nice enough for the sailboat class to hold court in Belmont Harbor. But surely not nice enough to take any risks that might put you in the water. After Chicago’s warmest March ever, one marked by an eight-day stretch of 80 degree-plus temperatures, April has been mostly below normal.

The forecast high for today is 52. Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 54, with some stiff north winds, dropping into the 40s tomorrow night.

Did I mention that I have a ticket for tomorrow’s game at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, my first night game of the season? Or did you just assume that?

So we had July in March, and we’re having March in April. What will May bring? Your guess is as good as mine.

Still, when it comes to weather, someone almost always has it worse. Parts of upstate New York, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia are forecast to get hit with a freak late April snowstorm that could dump more than a foot in places. If I lived in one of those areas and heard that forecast, I would just leave. Jump in the car and drive to the closest spot where it isn’t going to snow. I’m not that big a fan of snow in winter. Snow this late in the year would drive me to rage.

Catching up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown… according to Weather Underground…

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 53, a low of 41, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 77, a low of 61 and a trace of rain. Point D.C.

Wednesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 72, a low of 43, and .04 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 62, a low of 53 and .05 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 61, a low of 45, and and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 72, a low of 50 and a trace of rain. Point D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 50, a low of 41, and .02 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 76, a low of 52 and no rain. Point Chicago. Just kidding.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 51, a low of 36, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 82, a low of 57 and .16 of an inch of rain. A bit too chilly in Chicago, but muggy and rainy in D.C. Been there, done that. Point Chicago. Sue me.

That brings the overall Smackdown score to D.C. 143, Chicago 118.

Tales Of The Cast-Iron Griddle: Heavy Metal Burgers

My wife Barb, over our more than 31 years as a couple, has expressed her love in many ways. But last Christmas, she provided cast-iron proof, in the most literal sense.

As the cook in our home, I have long favored cast-iron cookware because it conducts heat so well. I don’t think there is anything better for the “keep it simple” method that is my preferred way to cook just about any kind of meat: Sear the outside at high temperature for about half the cooking time to get a little char on the surface, then lower to medium until cooked to the desired doneness.

But I didn’t go all in on cast-iron until after we moved last summer from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and into my first-ever apartment with ventilation sufficient enough that high-temperature stove-top cooking didn’t immediately set off the smoke alarm. So onto my Christmas list went a couple of items I had been desiring: a two-burner griddle that is flat on one side and a raised grill on the other, and a deep 12-inch skillet.

I would have been happy if Barb had gotten me either. But she went to a nearby cookware store and got both.

Then lugged 30 pounds worth of old-school heavy metal several blocks to where she parked.

I will take this as affirmation that my wife does indeed love me. And enjoys my cooking.

The Lodge two-sided griddle, as I expected, is now my Best Christmas Gift Ever. It cooks anything that doesn’t steep in liquid, from pancakes to pork chops. Long cuts of meats, including bacon strips, can cook without being cut up or crammed into a pan in which they don’t quite fit. And, if cast iron is seasoned correctly — meaning given a light veneer of vegetable oil after every use — it is at least as non-stick as the synthetic stuff.

(With the one essential disclaimer about cast-iron cookware: handle with extreme care, and truly heat-proof hotpads. I had a slip a couple of months ago and painfully branded my left index finger. I’ll have more to say about care and maintenance of cast iron pans in a future post.)

But the best part is that it is a perfect tool for the kind of nice and easy, two- or three-ingredient cooking that provides a restaurant-quality meal at home, usually in a half-hour or less.

The following dinner idea follows these principles. The next night, I made cod fillets with Greek seasoning on the flat side of the griddle, accompanied by a saute of diced green pepper, onions and pimento-stuffed green olives, and I’ll follow with these instructions in the next day or two.

Enjoy, and may all your cooking be heavy lifting. In the good sense.

CHEESE-STUFFED TURKEY BURGERS (makes 6)

2 lbs. ground turkey

About 2 oz.cheese — Crumbled (I used Salem blue, and feta is also excellent) or shredded is the easiest to handle for this, but any hard cheese (such as cheddar) diced small works fine, too.

Salt and pepper to taste, or your favorite seasoning blend: I used Penzey’s Old World seasoning, but their Greek seasoning also is great with turkey burgers, especially if you use feta cheese

Canola oil to coat

* Turn the two-sided griddle grill side up and place over two burners on the stovetop

* Preheat to medium high (7 out of 10 on my stove)

* Divide meat into six even portions (about a third-pounder each).


* Make a little well in each portion and fill it with the diced or crumbled cheese, then coat lightly with seasoning.


* Fold meat over so the cheese and seasoning are covered, but don’t overhandle.

* Coat the surface lightly with canola oil (helps hold the seasonings and brown the meat), and season to taste.


* Place burgers on the grill-griddle, and cook at medium-high heat for 4 minutes on each side.
* Turn heat down to medium (4 on my stove) and cook for another four minutes on each side. [See note]


* Check for doneness, and serve on buns with your choice of condiments and garnishes.

Note: The pan will give the meat the kind of grill lines you would get in outdoor cooking. If you want to do a cross-hatch, rotate the burgers 90 degrees about midway through cooking.

While these go great with the typical burger sides, such as fries and cole slaw, I served these with roasted asparagus, which is one of the world’s easiest preparations. Rinse and dry a pound of asparagus, break off the tough ends, sprinkle with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and granulated garlic, and roasted in the oven on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.

The Lake Shore View: Gracie The Cat Can Do Ennui, Too

Since I don’t have much time to write, so I’ll let the camera do the talking. First, here’s a spectacular shot of the retired space shuttle Columbia not flying over Chicago today.

I kid. I’m glad my friends in D.C. got a nice treat today, and my Facebook feed suggests this might be NASA’s biggest publicity coup since they first landed men on the moon in 1969.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day here on the Third Coast, if a little cool for mid-April. The weather so far this spring is a reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about the year’s weather based on freak weather events. We had a beach-weather heat wave that lasted a couple of weeks in March, and April’s temperatures have been at or below their chilly early spring averages. Go figure.

I’ll catch up on the Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown below, but first, some big news. Gracie the Cat has relented a bit on her contract demands to participate in this blog.

Over the past week or so, the YouTube videos of Henri the Cat have gotten wide distribution on the Web. If you haven’t seen them, they are two black-and-white shorts (about two minutes long each), with subtitles, that are takeoffs on the introspective filmmaking of France’s New Wave. In the videos, a narrator in the voice of Henri bemoans his tedious life as a pampered house cat.

Gracie, however, may have been watching over my shoulder and noticed that there is more than a passing resemblance between Henri (seen here looking in the mirror, with one of the best lines from Henri 2, Paw de Deux)…

… and Gracie herself.

Not separated at birth, perhaps, but definitely from the same family cat tree.

So, in pursuit of her own elusive 15 minutes of fame, Gracie agreed to a photo shoot. This one is for her fans out there.

And back to the Smackdown… according to Weather Underground…

Last Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 76, a low of 59, but lots of rain (.82 of an inch). Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 60 and no rain. Point for D.C.

On Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 66, a low of 43 and .02 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 89, a low of 63 and no rain. I’ve experienced a lot of 89 degrees in Chicago. Feels like 109. Point Chicago. That brings the overall score to D.C. 140, Chicago 116.

White Sox Baseball: A Day In ‘The Cell’ Was No Ordeal

No one who has been reading this blog will be surprised when I say that I’ll be spending a lot more of my baseball time and money at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, than at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the city’s other major league team, the White Sox.

I have loved going to games at Wrigley, a quaint baseball antique, since I attended my first game there nearly 30 years ago, so much that somewhere along the way I started rooting for the Cubs. The Cell, as the successor stadium to the Sox’ old Comiskey Park is known, opened in 1991 and seriously lacks the charm that makes the nearly century-old North Side ballpark a major tourist attraction.

Then there is the convenience factor. It is sheer coincidence that we ended up moving so close to Wrigley Field, but I can take a leisurely 15-minute stroll there and go to a baseball game. Or I can walk one block short of Wrigley, get on the Red Line train at the Addison stop, and take a 10-mile schlep through downtown to Sox Park (a tag favored by many over the tongue-tying name that resulted after the U.S. Cellular phone company bought the naming rights years ago).

If I hadn’t arrived in Chicago pre-packaged as a Cubs fan, the easy access to Wrigley Field probably would have been the tipping point.

But now I’m going to say something that some might find shocking. I do not hate the White Sox, although I may be required by statute to do so if I want to call myself a Cubs fan for the rest of my life.

And I had a nice time at this year’s first U.S. Cellular experience, Saturday’s game in which the White Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers, 5-1 (though admittedly this was enhanced by the fact that it was a field trip organized by the Michigan State University Alumni Club of Metro Chicago and I was surrounded by fellow Spartans, most of whom grew up in or near Detroit and were rooting for the visiting team).

U.S. Cellular Field was the last conventional, big-old-ballpark built before Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles’ stadium that opened in 1992, became the template for the more compact and idiosyncratic “retro” stadiums based on old-timey places such as Wrigley and Boston’s Fenway Park. Located at 35th and Shields streets on the South Side, it looms large over the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway.

There is a big banner on the side of the stadium that salutes the World Series championship that the White Sox won in 2005. Granted it was the team’s first crown since 1917, and the crosstown rival Cubs are still nursing a historic streak of no championships since 1908 (and not even a trip to the World Series since 1945). But there are some folks who believe the Sox and their fans remain a little too fixated on an event that occurred seven years ago now: Ben Strauss of the ChicagoSide sports site has an interesting perspective in his piece, “Excessive Commemoration at US Cellular.”

But the Cell makes up at least somewhat for its charm deficit with a few more creature comforts than Wrigley. The seats are a bit more comfortable, the aisles a bit wider. There are fewer seats with bad sightlines, in part because, unlike Wrigley, there are no steel support posts to create obstructed views. These are among the reasons why Mrs. B — who is naturally inclined anyway to favor the Sox because she grew up in a family of the team’s fans in a town south of Chicago — prefers to go to games at U.S. Cellular than Wrigley, much as it breaks my heart to admit that.

Sox Park has been known since it opened for having one of the better food concessions among major league ballparks, and the selection of beers, including some nice craft brews, is much wider than at the Cubs’ field.

That said, the Cell is a big place and you are likely to feel farther from the action than at the Cubs’ little bandbox. Our seats in the lower level in the left field corner were perfectly acceptable, but felt really far from home plate. The following, which shows Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd throwing to Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, was as close as I could get even with my telephoto lens maxed out.

We did have a good view of the outfield play. Here’s Jackson settling under a White Sox fly ball in the early going.

Floyd ended up picking up credit for the win by containing a powerful Detroit lineup that includes the massive Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman who they lured away from the Milwaukee Brewers with a huge contract this past off-season.

Floyd pitched six shutout innings, holding the Tigers to three hits and striking out six batters. He did have to weather some control problems, as he walked three Detroiters and hit three more with pitches.

The Sox are hardly tearing the cover off the ball — they rank 19th in batting average and 24th in run production among the 30 major league teams — but decent pitching and some timely, if very occasional, hitting has them at 5-3 in the early season going, even after the Tigers — the team widely favored to win the American League Central Division that they share with Chicago — salvaged one of the three games in the weekend series with a win on Sunday that put them back in first place with a record of 6-3.

The White Sox on Saturday got three solo home runs, from shortstop Alexei Ramirez, backup catcher Tyler Flowers, and veteran star first baseman Paul Konerko, seen here completing his tour of the bases.

Meanwhile, Adam Dunn chipped in with a double in four at-bats…

… though his performance in the season’s first week has hardly quelled concerns about the multi-multi-million contract to which the team signed him prior to the 2011 season. After averaging about 40 home runs and 100 runs batted in per year from 2004 through 2010 playing for the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals, Dunn was a colossal flop in his first season with the Sox, batting .159 on the season with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.

While his .233 batting average after hitting two more doubles on Sunday looks pretty meh for a player who is being paid big bucks to carry his team’s offense, it is almost half again as high as his season average last year.

But Saturday, a day on which White Sox pitchers held the Tigers to one run on an eighth-inning homer by outfielder Brennan Boesch, was one on which the team didn’t need a ton of offense. Here’s closer Matt Thornton retiring Detroit pinch-hitter Brandon Inge on a ground ball to the mound for the game’s last out.

And the final verdict…

The Lake Shore View: Signs Of Chicago Spring, In Lake And Sky

Last July, on the day after we moved to Chicago, we experienced an epic thunderstorm. For a lifelong weather junkie, it was exhilarating to watch from the 30th floor as vivid cloud-to-ground lightning flashed across a panaroma of dozens of miles.

It was a little frightening, too, especially when it started to hail heavily (this was the same storm that inflicted severe damage to greenhouses at the city’s Garfield Park Conservatory). At that time, we were still waiting for the moving van to arrive from the East, and our apartment was completely empty save for two canvas folding chairs and an Aerobed. The hailstorm created the sensation of being trapped in a box suspended 300 feet off the ground while being pelted by small stones.

Ever since, I’ve wondered if I’d ever master capturing photos of lightning, especially since I bought the cool camera (a Sony Nex-3) that is responsible for most of the photos on the blog. Last night, I got a chance to try as a spring storm lit up the skies around midnight. While I’ve got a lot of work to do to get this just right, here’s what it looked like out the western windows.

Shooting toward the lake is more problematic, as the reflection off the water turns lightning into more of a blinding flash. Most of my attempted shots produced nothing but pure white lightning. Here’s one that at least kept a little scenery for perspective.

The weather forecast suggests I may get some more opportunities to practice tonight. It comes complete with a severe storm watch, so be careful out there.

There are, however, an increasing number of the more benign signs that spring is nigh, for real this time.

For instance, there are….

… some boats docked in the marina at Belmont Harbor! And as you can see in the background above and more clearly here, it’s also sailing-class season.

So how’s the weather been? Let’s catch up with the Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown to find out. According to Weather Underground…

Last Sunday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 66, a low of 45 and a trace of  precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 74, a low of 48 and no rain. A close call, but a slight edge for D.C.

On Monday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 63, a low of 41 and a trace of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 69, a low of 53 and a trace of rain. Another  narrow win for D.C.

On Tuesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 46, a low of 34 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 68, a low of 45 and no rain. Well, that’s a no brainer.

On Wednesday, I had a ticket to the Cubs game. You know where this is going. Chicago Midway reported a high of 54, a low of 32 and no precipitation. But Washington Reagan National reported a high of 56, a low of 40 and .01 rain. Close enough to cut Chicago a break.

On Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 32 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 63, a low of 42 and no rain. The point goes to Chicago on the “above seasonal average” rule.

On Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 66, a low of 40 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 67, a low of 45 and no rain. Point Chicago (see above).

And on Saturday, I finally got a little warm weather for a baseball game, and we dodged the threat of rain. Naturally, this was a home game for the South Side Chicago White Sox and not the Cubs. Chicago Midway reported a high of 67, a low of 54 and .16 of an inch of  precipitation (almost all of that very late at night). Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 46 and no rain. Point: D.C.

All that edges D.C.’s overall lead to 139-115.

Chicago ♥ Craft Brews: A Day At The Beer Fest

I’m a little tardy at posting by thoughts about Chicago Beer Fest. Okay, two weeks late. But when it comes to craft-brewed beer, it’s always better late than never.

It’s not surprising that there was a block-long line of craft brew lovers waiting for the doors to open for the three-hour afternoon session of the Chicago Beer Fest, held in the main hall of Union Station on Saturday, March 31.

The city’s long but once sepia-toned history of beer making has been revitalized in recent years, by the rise of the pioneering Goose Island “microbrewery,” and more recently by the rapidly growing field of competition that includes Revolution, Half-Acre, Finch’s and Metropolitan, to name just a few.

And taps around town have been taken over by craft brews from around the Chicago metropolitan area and across the country. These beers offers a palette of styles and flavors (and alcohol clout) as an alternative to the same-old, same-old of the mass-brewed American lagers.

The participants at Chicago Beer Fest, which concluded with a separate three-hour session that night, were a mix of local producers and national breweries such as Lagunitas of Petaluma, Calif., and New Belgium (maker of the popular “Fat Tire” brand) of Fort Collins, Colo.

I decided to focus almost entirely on beers brewed in Chicago or elsewhere nearby in the Midwest. One exception I made was for Lagunitas, because I like their beers a lot, and because I spotted that their regional brand ambassador, whom I’d met at some previous events, was pouring. My decision to include Lagunitas along with my lineup of local micros turned out to be unexpectedly prescient: Just this past week, news broke that the company is planning to build a new production in Chicago, which will be the city’s biggest current brewery upon completion.

Rule #1 of any “open bar” tasting event is to pace yourself. Still, I managed to squeeze 10 pours into the cute little 5 oz. plastic mug that each attendee was handed upon entry, which is the equivalent of three pint glasses, or four 12 oz. bottles or cans. So, you’ve got to be careful out there.

There’s Good, and Then There’s OMG! With so many well-established successes in the craft beer world, it seems to be getting harder and harder from anyone to make a really bad beer. So one of the best things about these sampling events is that the great beers stand out from the merely good.

I had sampled a couple of modest beers when I decided to take a quaff of the Dragon’s Milk Stout from New Holland, which is producing a fine line of beer and distilled spirits in Holland, Mich. This was a bit of a cheat, because I’d had Dragon’s Milk before at my favorite local tavern, and I’ve long been a fan of bourbon-barrel aging and the unique flavors that the wood imparts to beer.

But it was the comparison to what I’d already tasted at the beer fest (and most of what I tasted after) that made the Dragon’s Milk pop as my best in show. Rich, complex, with a great mouth-feel, New Holland’s description of this beer as its “crown jewel” is justified. A great sipping beer, which is a good thing, because at 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), it packs about twice the punch of the yellow beers most people drink by the gallon.

This undoubtedly gives away my preference for strong, dark beer, but my runner-up favorites were the Satin Solstice by Central Waters of Amherst, Wis., a beautiful, pitch-black Imperial stout (7.5% ABV) with a chocolate malt flavor profile, and the 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style dark ale by the new (established 2011) and relatively tiny 5 Rabbit brewery of Chicago, a nicely balanced and subtly spicy beer with a copper-ruby color.

Uno Nuevo Cerveceria. Because the market is getting more and more crowded with microbreweries experimenting with different blends of hops, grains, spices, botanicals, fruit and other ingredients, it is becoming more of a challenge for them to claim their own niches. That is not the case for 5 Rabbit, whose claim as the nation’s first Latin American craft brewery has not been disputed.

In a phone interview a few days after the beer fest, Issac Showaki — a native of Mexico who co-founded the brewery with Andres Araya, a native of Costa Rica — explained there is no single Latin-style of brewing, but they are adapting ingredients common to regional cultures to their beer recipes. For example, the 5 Vulture ale I tried includes ingredients typical to the Mexican region of Oaxaca, such as dark-brown piloncillo sugar (which is used to soften the bitterness of the chocolate used in mole sauce) and a hint of ancho chile.

Showaki said that as 5 Rabbit seeks to establish itself and grow, its first target will be craft beer geeks looking for something new and different, but he says he and his partners see a long-term opportunity in cultivating the nation’s rapidly expanding Hispanic demographic, “because there is no craft beer for Hispanics.”

Was It Worth It? The event cost $40, so if you calculated the cost per amount consumed, it would have come to about $13 a pint (a very expensive glass of beer). But I got to sample 10 different beers; got some face time with brewers and their reps; and unexpectedly ran into a friend.

Of course, I could have brought down my per-unit cost by drinking a lot more. But that would have been wrong.