Sunday, June 12, 2011

Top off my 'Topes in the top of the third, please!

Last Friday night was one of those great evenings for a baseball game. I can't say perfect--there was still too much smoke in the Albuquerque sky for it to be perfect. (Not only for the fact that smoke was in the air, but even more for the ever-hanging reminder of the tragic fire in Arizona.) But that aside...

I'm a bit of a baseball purist. And sometimes, I'm certain, frustratingly so. (Frustratingly? That's the adverb you chose?) I'm the guy who doesn't boo the umpire when an opponent is called safe at the plate, but who has to explain to everyone around me that the tag was high and really, the runner was safe by a mile. I'm the guy who remembers (aloud) the old Albuquerque Sports Stadium every time I visit the much newer Isotopes Park on the same spot, and who wishes (aloud) that he could still see the Dukes in their old red-and-yellows instead of the 'Topes and their admittedly-quirky Simpsons-inspired team. I'm the guy who prefers a 1-0 game or a 3-2 game with stellar pitching to a 17-15 slugfest (which I've seen at Isotopes Park before). But baseball is baseball, and even if it's a lopsided 14-1 game, I enjoy it.

This game provided me with a good middle ground (and a very good seat. We had scored discounted tickets, six rows off of first base!). The Albuquerque Isotopes were hosting the Nashville Sounds, and I'll admit I didn't recognize any of the names on either roster (though both the Dodgers and the Brewers supposedly have decent farm systems). (I love sports, but I am not knowledgeable about baseball, at all. I enjoy games more when I'm with Zach, but I have a bad habit of referring to the barnyard system or grass-fed system, which is why he's writing this post.) But it wasn't the kind of game that Albuquerque, with its high elevation and thin air, is known for. The big inning never happened. (You see, in Albuquerque, a four-run third and a three-run seventh are not big innings. Not quite.) Baserunning was more important than power. Starting pitchers stayed on the mound relatively deep in the game. And we had a very good, locally-brewed beer.

(Translation for the non-baseball fans: Games in Albuquerque usually go like: boring, boring, WOW, boring, boring.....)

You see, Isotopes Park has been taken over by some of the big breweries. Just like ballparks almost everywhere. Sure, each of the concession stands has a slightly different variety, and of course Miller Lite and Bud Light are on tap for those who value cheapness at a game (ha!) over any kind of quality. I mean, we're talking Blue Moon counts as a "premium" beer. You used to be able to buy at least a Fat Tire or a Sierra Nevada to go with your peanuts and Cracker Jack. No more. And for all the decent breweries in the Albuquerque area, none are served here. Save one.

And I can't figure out why they don't sell more of it. I mean, come on. It's their own friggin' brewery.

Isotopes Brewing Company has its headquarters in Albuquerque and brews, as far as I know, out in Moriarty at the same complex as Roswell Alien and Monk's Ale and Rio Grande. Jenny and I have tried their blonde beer at a game before, but when we went to the same booth last Friday night, they only had the Isotopes Amber. (See? Why don't they serve both beers? And any others they might have? And at every window?) Partly out of feeling snobbish about beer, partly out of wanting an Isotopes beer at an Isotopes game, but mostly out of a desire to take the beer most likely to please, we each ordered the amber.

Amber is precisely the word for this beer. The makers somehow dipped their hops directly into a New Mexican sunset. You know that precise shade of red that we in the desert call 7:45. We held it up to the sun to compare. Absolutely gorgeous. Georgia O'Keefe could have painted with this beer color; that's how gorgeous!

And it is good. Nothing too fancy. It's an everyman beer, just like baseball is an everyman game. It tasted like it was meant to be served in a flimsy plastic cup--and I mean that in the best of ways.

But just like baseball, that doesn't mean it's not complex. That doesn't mean it's not nuanced.

You want nuance? This beer has that very basic, often underestimated, old fashioned beer flavor. It was the flavor of a ball game on a hot afternoon. It was a beer for grabbing yer' crotch, spittin' tobacky in the grass, flashin' the sign for a fast ball to the catcher all just before taking another swig of that fine, clear golden beverage! Aaaaaahhhhhhcccchhhh, you sigh in that guttural, throaty way that humans sigh when they've drunk something so delicious and refreshing.

I couldn't isolate any of the tones or flavors in this amber, (tobacky?) but I know what it complemented. The smell of my baseball glove's leather. (Yes, I smelled my glove while drinking the amber.) The mixture of leather, sweat, and remnants of old dirt when I took my hand out of my glove. (Yup, I smelled that too.) (I must have been buying kettle corn or something. I promise I never allow this kind of scratch and sniff behavior when we're seated side-by-side.) I wanted to pick up a handful of the moist infield clay, because I believe that this beer was meant to pair with the scent of dirt between first and second base.

I might have done it, too. But we bought our beers in the third inning, and I didn't want to get thrown out of the ballpark. Not that early in the game, at least.

He acts like the trouble-maker. Honey, tell 'em about that one game when the 'Topes were fending off a 12th inning comeback by the opposing team. The bases are loaded and the batter cracks the ball down center field. It's retrieved, relayed--OUT! Relayed again--OUT! Meanwhile the guy on third base is truckin' as fast as he can to home. If he makes it the 'Topes are sunk! The entire stadium falls silent under the weight of nervous anticipation. The ball relays to the catcher who readies himself on home plate. Then in the midst of the total silence some girl shouts out "OH SHIT!" so loud that who even knows the outcome of the game because everyone is pointing at that girl. Yeah...that might have been me. Zach might have laughed hysterically. But hey, it shows I was paying attention to the game, not just my kettle corn.

The game, like so many good ones, went into extra innings. The Isotopes won when Trayvon Robinson lashed a walk-off home run to lead off the bottom of the tenth. And just like that, it was over. But not without climax. Not without the taste of the game holding all the way through, just like the Isotopes Amber.

Would the beer be any good bottled? Sure. (Oh, then you could have it in the backyard, while barbecuing some burgers and hot dogs on Independence Day. Mmmmmm!) But would it be as good as it was with the evening sun warming the bubbles, with the hint of rawhide and clean soil and wood that goes hand in hand with a professional ballpark? Not a chance.

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