December 6, 2012
In A Pickle
Trout Au Vin, and Other Delicious Dishes
Friends, winter has come. An entire set of Meetings in Nashville has been dedicated to ringing in the season. The air is cold, there is no baseball, and it is all we can do to keep ourselves occupied while trying not to be driven mad by the latest Ken Rosenthal rumor about Justin Upton, or Jon Heyman report on Zack Greinke. We are forgiven, then, for turning to food. After all, food is frequently warm, cooking it makes us busy, and it does not require the presence of baseballing men on our televisions or radios.
Which is not to say that food and baseball don't make a natural pair. A bite and a beer, both the eating and the acquiring, can ease the boredom of a slow fifth inning in a meaningless August blowout, particularly as the hot dogs in many ballparks have been supplemented by more upscale options and the available beers have expanded from the usual selection of Bud, Bud Light, Bud Lime, Bud Dark, Bud Plus, and Bud Unleaded. Still, when I say "upscale," I for the most part mean "hamburgers from Shake Shack instead of Carls Jr." As far as I know and have been able to Google, nobody's yet offering escargot in the mezzanine on the third-base side. What I would like to demonstrate for you, if you'll permit me, is that some classic dishes in French cuisine can provide a gateway to thinking about baseball and baseball players while simultaneously making you ravenous.
Let's start with an appetizer of chicken liver pâté on wee toasts. Chicken liver is not my favorite animal organ in the world. I might even call it "kinda gross" were I in a less dignified frame of mind. But in the hands of a proper cook and by the blade of a proper food processor and through the might of a proper pound of butter, that kinda gross chicken liver can be transformed into a silky, smooth, delicious pâté.
Adjustments, it is said, are at the core of baseball success. In an at-bat, in a game, in a series, in a season, your opponents figure out your strengths and weaknesses and your strategies. In a career, all of that happens and your body fails you and your employer's needs change and the larger environment of baseball shifts to emphasize different skills and abilities. At a certain point in the careers of some players, at a certain level of potential failure, the word "adjustments" stops being operative and "radical overhauls" come into play.
With that and chicken livers in mind, could there be two things in the world grosser for a baseball pitcher than not having a UCL and not having a fastball? R.A. Dickey overcame both of these handicaps and used an old family recipe—his grandfather taught him his knuckleball—to turn himself into the 20-"win" marvel we saw in 2012, the Cy Young winner in the National League three years after putting up a 4.62 ERA in 64 1/3 relief innings for the Mariners. Sometimes the ingredients for success are hidden deeper than simple hard work and dedication can reach. Sometimes you need a food processor. The risk of reinvention is that you'll completely ruin the raw materials you started with, but in baseball, as in livers, if your upside is Triple-A, then what's the risk? Playing baseball may be great fun, but chopped liver ain't a meal and the minor leagues aren't a career.
Speaking of reinvention, sometimes the keys to a prime eveningtime dish are right in front of you at breakfast. At least in America, eggs and bacon are a morning staple, but beat the eggs and put them in a pie crust with that bacon and thirty minutes later you've got a quiche lorraine for supper. Thirty minutes of baking, I mean. Please do not just let your eggs sit for 30 minutes and then eat them. Or if you do, please sign the attached waiver of your rights to sue me.
This less drastic form of reinvention (as compared to the pâté) brings to mind Brad Ziegler, who was drafted twice, neither time higher than the 20th round, and got his first release just six innings into his professional career. After later working his way to Triple-A as a traditional pitcher, Ron Romanick of the A's converted him to a submarine style because he had no legitimate hope of significant major-league success as he was. Suddenly armed with a wicked sinker and a frisbee slider, Ziegler has thrown 320 2/3 good big-league innings and made a tad shy of $4 million. It's not much by baseball standards, of course, but there was a serious danger of making essentially zero money from baseball before he attempted the conversion. The quiche was inside him all the time.
(I haven't found room in this conversion narrative for Sean Doolittle and Sergio Santos, position players who converted into hard-throwing relievers and found major-league success that way. Feel free to come up with your own recipe to fit their situation.)
Pâté and submariners are exotic, but sometimes the best pleasures are simple. Coq au vin is as basic as it gets, a Julia Child staple with roots thousands of years deep, a dish of braised chicken (the coq) in wine (the vin). And yet! The tenderness of the meat, the melange of flavors, and the deeply hearty, visceral visual appearance combine to form something truly delightful.
One is put in mind of the pre-2012 rookie hype around and subsequent performances of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. The latter emerged from Las Vegas, the architectural and cultural embodiment of insubstantial flash, left high school early to hit in a wood-bat community college league, and was unfortunately better known in his amateur and minor-league days for blowing kisses and smearing eye-black over the majority of face than for his on-field exploits.
Trout, by contrast, the New Jerseyan, has never said a word you'd remember. He has a signature skill, perhaps, if you want to say that his speed is what pops, but 30 homers and a .238 isolated power, defense that goes beyond mere legs, and walks in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances say that Trout is extremely good at everything there is to be good at and that what makes him truly special is that nobody else is extremely good at everything.
Trout is not bland, certainly, because nobody who robs homers as spectacularly as he does could be bland, but there is something solid and traditional and satisfying about Trout's game. Down-home, almost. Where every borderline-reckless Harper hustle play feels like a conscious refutation of his reputation for arrogance, Trout's homers and his steals and his catches deep in the power alleys just are those things, encumbered by nothing but the joy of watching a transcendent baseball player accomplish remarkable things. A narrative arose around Trout and the MVP award, but little narrative as yet surrounds his actual play. There are hopes and expectations and fears about his future, but there's a sense in which Trout, despite being the best 20-year-old ever, is not new. He's not Korean-French fusion, coq au kimchee broth. That's Harper, who took a route to the Nationals lineup that we hadn't seen before. Trout was simply a first-round pick who played well in all phases of the game in the minors and then kept playing well and then suddenly was laying waste to the best pitchers in the world. He isn't different. He's just better.
If you aren't still full of Trout au vin in the morning, a pain au chocolat from a reputable bakery will hit the spot. Just be sure to avoid the sad ones, which is the same advice I'd have given to Ned Colletti about utility men if he asked me.