Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Bye Bye Baby Cakes & What Comes Next

            The New Orleans Baby Cakes, the AAA affiliate of the Miami Marlins, played their last home game at the Shrine on Airline on August 29. They lost 8-5. The loss marks the end of professional baseball in New Orleans—at least for the time being. The Baby Cakes are moving to Wichita, Kansas. Currently, there is no new tenant for the Shrine on Airline for next season. 

            The Baby Cakes arrived in New Orleans in 1993, when they were known as the Zephyrs. The Zephyrs arrival returned professional baseball to New Orleans for the first time since 1977 when the New Orleans Pelicans left town after 90 years in New Orleans. While the Zephyrs came from Denver, their name had local roots as well. The Zephyr was a famous rollercoaster at the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park before it closed in 1983. In 2017, the team rebranded as the Baby Cakes following the trend of other minor leagues who sought quirky nicknames—see the Hartford Yard Goats, the Akron Rubber Ducks, the Rocket City Trash Pandas, and the El Paso Chihuahuas. 

            The reasons for the Baby Cakes departure are myriad. The name change was never popular amongst locals. While ostensibly named after the baby found in king cakes, there is no such thing as a baby cake. Additionally, the mascot (pictured below) looks like the villain of a low-rent Stephen King novel. It’s something that would haunt your fever dreams rather than get you to cheer for the local sports team.  

The Shrine on Airline is also in need of desperate repair. SMG, the firm that manages the stadium, and the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) would have to raise the millions of dollars necessary to cover the upgrades. There is at least $3 million available in funds from the state, but that is only about half of the estimated cost of overhauling the facility. An SMG representative said, “It likely would be a significant improvement for whoever is in there. If there's an opportunity to have a team replace the Baby Cakes that could be successful in the market, we would like to understand what that team would need to be successful.” When the Baby Cakes announced they were leaving at the end of 2018, team officials were hopeful of bringing in a AA Southern League franchise as a replacement. No such deal, however, has materialized.  

Additionally, the Baby Cakes have yet to void their lease for the Shrine on Airline for next season. Their new home in Wichita is not complete and isn’t expected to be finished until January. So there remains a small chance that the Baby Cakes will be back in 2020. But local officials don’t seem too happy about the prospect. It is hard to sell a new franchise on taking over the stadium when the old team hasn’t left yet. The chairman of the LSED has written to the team asking for a departure date.  As he wrote, "Unfortunately, the team’s inaction has created a great deal of uncertainty and … has resulted in the loss of potential revenue for LSED." 

With the Baby Cakes set to leave, whenever that may be, there may not be an appetite for professional baseball in New Orleans. The LSED has explored whether to convert the Shrine on Airline for soccer or rugby use. Attendance for the Baby Cakes has declined for the last few years and there’s plenty of college baseball—LSU, Tulane, UNO, and Delgado—for local fans. August 29, 2019 may have been the end of professional baseball in Louisiana for the foreseeable future. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Saints 2019: Biggest Questions

            The New Orleans Saints begin their 2019 season next Monday night in the Superdome against the Houston Texans. After last year’s division title and trip to the NFC championship game, expectations in the Big Easy are high. As quarterback Drew Brees enters his age-40 season, it’s now or never for the Saints to bring home another Super Bowl title. 

            The leading projection systems are in line with fan expectations. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects New Orleans to go 10-6 with a 73% chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl (12.3%) behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots.  Football Outsides gives the Saints the best chance of winning Super Bowl LIV at 13.5%. 

            Rather than do a traditional preview, let’s look at the big questions confronting the Saints this season. The answers will determine whether New Orleans will have to add another parade to the already busy Mardi Gras season or go home again without a Super Bowl title. 

Will Drew Brees bounce back? 

            At first glance, Brees had a typical year for him—32 TD passes to only 5 INTs, a 74.4 completion percentage, and nearly 4,000 passing yards. But over the last three regular season games (Brees didn’t play in Week 17) and the Saints two playoff games, Brees was far from his usual self. His yards per attempt fell to 6.95, well below his seasonal average of 8.16. He only threw 2 TD passes against 2 INTs in 3 games. The Saints average points per game fell from nearly 30 to just over 20. In the NFC championship game Brees threw a crucial interception in overtime that resulted in the Rams victory. 

            The question facing the Saints is will Brees bounce back or was this the beginning of the end? The aging curve for 40 year old quarterbacks isn’t pretty. Remember what happened to Peyton Manning in Denver or Brett Favre in Minnesota? But look at Tom Brady in New England who is entering his age 42 season and shows no signs of slowing down. And even a diminished Brees is still better than most other quarterbacks in the NFL. In other words, who knows which Brees will show up on Monday night, but the Saints' Super Bowl hopes ride on #9. 

Will the defense be good again? 

            After years of languishing at the bottom of the league in team defense, in 2018, the New Orleans defense had their second good season in a row. In total, the Saints finished 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA defensive rankings, with the 3rd best run defense but 22nd ranked pass defense. The 2018 Saints flipped their defense ranking from 2017 when they finished 8th overall with the 5th ranked pass defense and 23rd ranked run defense. Over the last few years, New Orleans has invested significant draft capital on defense including first round picks on Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport and second round picks on Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. 

            Defensive performance, however, varies significantly from season to season. Additionally, the Saints were remarkably injury-averse in 2018, finishing 6th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. Backup cornerback Patrick Robinson was the only significant defensive player to miss time. Injury luck also doesn’t hold over from season to season. The Saints defense may look good on paper, but if Lattimore or star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan miss time, then it will be difficult for the Saints to replicate their defensive success from past years. 

Can the Saints keep winning close games? 

            In 2018, New Orleans went 5-1 in games decided by six points or less. Performance in one score games varies from year to year because it depends on just a handful of plays to break one way or another. Against Cleveland in Week 2, Will Lutz hit a 44 yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the game to win the game for the Saints 21-18. Against Atlanta in Week 3, the Saints had to drive down the field and tie the game 37-37 with 1:15 left in regulation before winning in overtime. Only a missed extra point by the normally reliable Ravens Justin Tucker prevented a 24-24 tie that would have likely gone to overtime. Against Pittsburgh in Week 16, Brees led the Saints on a game winning TD drive and left the Steelers with just 1:25 left on the clock. This season, all those plays might not go the Saints way.  

            Last season, the Saints went 13-3, had homefield advantage in the NFC, and hosted the NFC title game. In order to reach that point, a lot had to go right for the Saints—a good defense, health, and luck mostly—and New Orleans will need those to happen again to give Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the people of the Crescent City their second Super Bowl title.  

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Car in the Canal!

New Orleans relies on a system of drainage canals to keep the city from flooding during heavy rainstorms. In July, residents in the Mid-City neighborhood experienced some particularly nasty flooding, prompting the city to inspect the Lafitte drainage canal. Inside they found at least one car. Take a look at the story, that can only happen in New Orleans, below.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The All-Louisiana MLB Lineup

            A while back we looked at the best baseball players ever to come out of Louisiana. So today, we thought we’d revisit that premise in a different way. So we’re going to look at the best players at each position from Louisiana. 

Without further ado, let’s get into it. 

Bill Dickey
Will Clark
Connie Ryan
John Peters
Oliver Marcell
Albert Belle
Reggie Smith
Mell Ott
Rusty Staub

Born in rural Bastrop, Louisiana in 1907, Bill Dickey eventually made it all the way to New York City. Making his Major League debut at the age of 21 in 1928, Dickey quickly became the starting catcher for the New York Yankees. Between 1928 and 1943, Dickey made 10 All-Star games and won seven World Series championships. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954. Nicknamed “The Man Nobody Knows” Dickey later managed the Yankees and helped teach Hall of Famer Yogi Berra the finer points of catching. 

Bill Dickey in 1937 

            Former San Francisco Giants first baseman and New Orleans native Will Clark never quite fit the offensive profile of a first baseman. Generally, first baseman are supposed to be big, lumbering power hitters. While Clark had some power—he hit 35 home runs in 1987—he was better known for his discerning batting eye and his ability to hit doubles. In 1988, he lead the league with 100 walks and only 129 strikeouts. 

Connie Ryan had a lengthy career in Major League Baseball. The New Orleans resident attended LSU before appearing in 1,184 games in 12 seasons. Throughout his career, Ryan played second and third base. He had 58 career home runs and 988 career hits. Ryan spent much of his career with the Braves as they moved from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. After retiring, Ryan worked as a coach and scout and had two brief stints as a manager for the Braves and the Texas Rangers.

John Peters, a New Orleans native, played for five different teams in his ten year career. He first reached the majors in 1874 with the Chicago White Stockings. In 1876, Peters had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .351/.357/.418 good for 3.3 wins above replacement.

Oliver “Ghost” Marcell played third base in the Negro Leagues from 1918-1928. Known for his abrasive temperament, Marcell fought with umpires and opposing players and apparently retired from baseball after having his nose bit off in a fight. The Thibodaux native, however, was also a fantastic fielder and hitter. His contemporaries claimed that Marcell was the greatest third baseman in the entire league. He played in two Negro League World Series for the Bacharach Giants.

            Mell Ott, a Gretna native, played his entire career for the New York Giants. He appeared in 12 All-Star games and won the World Series in 1933. In that World Series, he hit two home runs, drove in four runs and had a .389 batting average. In his career, Ott hit 511 home runs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951, just four years after he retired. 

Reggie Smith, a native of Shreveport, was a hard-throwing outfielder who throughout his 16-year career played for the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco. While Smith was a strong defender in right and center field, he also could hit. In 1977, he led the league in on-base percentage. He averaged 26 home runs per season over the course of his career and twice led the league in doubles. The seven time All-Star also won the 1981 World Series with the Dodgers.

Albert "Corky" Belle 

            Cleveland Indians left fielder and Shreveport native Albert Belle hit 381 home runs and anchored the lineup of the 1990s Indians, Belle had a rather checkered career in the major leagues. In 1994, Belle was suspended for using a corked bat. Belle then convinced a teammate, Jason Grimsley, to climb through a ceiling panel in order to steal his corked bat out of the umpires’ dressing room and swap it with a different one. Belle had a reputation for destroying clubhouse equipment and being rude to teammates and the media. 

            Besides having a great name, New Orleans native Rusty Staub was primarily known for hitting home runs and doubles. He was a part of the first Montreal Expos team and became that team’s first star player. He still holds the Expos record for career on-base percentage, .402.  The six-time All-Star was nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” by Expos fans for his red hair.   

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Star Wars Machete Order

         The Star Wars Machete Order, as introduced by blogger Rod Hilton, addresses some of the major problems of watching the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. It calls for watching the films in the following order: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and finishing with Return of the Jedi. For the numerically inclined, it looks like this: 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. 

But what about Episode 1: The Phantom Menace? The film introduces a young Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Star Wars universe in general. You can safely skip over the entire film without significantly detracting from the rest. Qui-Gon Jin? Only ever mentioned two more times as a throwaway line and an excuse to explain why Obi-Wan becomes a force ghost. All of the stuff about Anakin on Tatooine? It’s all re-introduced in Episode II. When Anakin first meets with Padme, she fondly recalled their earlier adventures. Anakin makes it abundantly clear that he’s been lusting after her in the ensuing years, but Padme still seems him as the young boy she once knew.  The quick re-introduction provides all the background for their relationship that you need—especially as his infatuation blossoms into some seriously stalker-ish behavior later in the film. Anakin similarly mentions that he left his mother behind when he joined the Jedi order and he still misses her. This presages his nightmares and desire, later in the film, to find her back on Tatooine. The film even introduces a new villain, Count Dooku, and a new threat, galactic civil war, to replace the groan inducing trade negotiations of Episode 1 (millions of nerd voices cry out in terror every time they are mentioned). Nute Gunray appears in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but is largely shunted to the background. The Machete Order also blessedly removes Jar-Jar Binks as a prominent character. Instead of the bumbling idiot of The Phantom Menace, he becomes a member of Padme’s entourage. In this limited background role, the features that made Jar-Jar so annoying in Episode 1—his stupidity and horrible accent—are dramatically reduced. His reintroduction to Anakin and Obi Wan is brief and merely indicates that he too shared in their previous adventures. Removing The Phantom Menace doesn’t detract from the Star Wars saga in any meaningful way. 

The greatest strength of the Machete Order is that it keeps the focus of the movies on the story of Luke Skywalker. His story drives the narrative arc of the original trilogy. He goes from a frustrated moisture farmer—all he wanted to do was go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters—to Jedi knight and a hero of the Rebellion. Luke’s character is very clear from the beginning. He’s a conscientious, hard-working young man who dreams of a better life for himself. He constantly puts the needs of others ahead of his own. He has remained on Tatooine to help his uncle on his moisture farm while all his friends have left. He risks his life to save Leia, a woman he has never met. InEmpire, Luke cuts short his Jedi training to save Leia and Han, even though he knows he’s walking into a trap set by Darth Vader. Along the way he meets up with his long lost sister, Leia, a roguish smuggler, Han Solo, and a big walking carpet, Chewbacca (who thanks to the death of the Extended Universe no longer dies being crushed by a moon).  There are space battles, lightsaber duels, and some gorgeous cinematography along the way. 

The Machete Order cleans up your mess George!

The Machete Order also preserves the truth of Darth Vader’s identity until he reveals it to Luke at the end of Empire. Watching the films chronologically diminishes the surprise of Vader’s revelation. (Note I’m writing here in terms of preserving the dramatic tension, everyone and their mother knows about the Luke-Vader relationship.) Until this moment, Vader has been the unquestioned villain of Star Wars. He relentlessly pursues Leia, the rebels, and finally Luke. The revelation that he is Luke’s father adds a shade of complexity to the character. By following Empire with the second and third films, the new trilogy serves as an extended flashback, comparing the different paths taken by father and son. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s path towards the dark side of the force is clearly laid out. Traumatized by his experiences in slavery and the death of his mother, he seeks to protect himself and his loved ones, whatever the cost. He becomes increasingly obsessed, especially in Revenge of the Sith, with his own desires. He wants to become a Jedi Master and is incensed when the Jedi Council refuses to promote him. He wants to protect Padme, his wife, even at the cost of every other Jedi in the universe. Anakin speaks of bringing order to his empire. What began as a desire to protect his loved ones becomes all about himself. 

This order of the films also makes it abundantly clear that Anakin is not particularly bright. He places incompetent officers, like Admiral Ozzel, in positions of authority, killing them when they predictably fail. He is easily manipulated by Emperor Palpatine, makes impulsive decisions, and his incredible powers with the force lead him to be overconfident in his own abilities. He duels with Count Dooku only to lose an arm. He’s easily goaded into killing Dooku by Palpatine—immediately noting “I shouldn’t have done that.” In scenes featuring Palpatine or others in positions of authority, Anakin frequently stands to the side staring—the Palpatine-Mace Windu confrontation or when the Emperor is shooting Luke with force lightning are two prominent examples. Only the pleading of his own son reawakens the humanity within him. It is Luke who finally pushes Anakin to kill the Emperor. Using these two films as an extended flashback also sets up Anakin’s redemption in Return of the Jedi as we see what drove him to the dark side and what brought him back. 

In the Machete Order, Palpatine’s brilliance at manipulating Anakin, the Jedi, and the Galactic Republic becomes abundantly clear. He’s playing chess while the rest of the Galaxy is sitting on the ground eating dirt. The new trilogy shows Palpatine’s ability to enact several plans at once, allowing them to develop, and then picking the one that is most advantageous to him. In Revenge of the Sith, he sacrifices Count Dooku, until then his most powerful ally, in order to bring Anakin over to the Dark Side. He controls both sides of a galactic civil war and kills the leaders of the Separatist movement, who had followed every one of his orders in order to consolidate his own power. Palpatine successfully manipulates the Rebel Alliance into attacking the presumably unfinished Second Death Star. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he seems ready to either have Vader kill Luke and eliminate the biggest threat to his own power or have Luke kill and then replace his father as Palpatine’s puppet. Only Luke’s pleas to the little goodness left within Anakin foil Palpatine’s plan. For all of his foresight, he couldn't imagine Darth Vader tossing him down a conveniently located ventilation shaft. 

The Jedi, meanwhile, come out looking rather badly. Episodes 2 and 3 highlight their glaring incompetence in perceiving the Sith threat and Obi-Wan’s utter failure as Anakin’s teacher. Obi-Wan spends more time trying to be Anakin’s friend than his instructor. Anakin frequently disobeys Obi-Wan’s instructions, but gets away with it because his superior skills overcome his initial stupidity. As Anakin becomes increasingly encased in the web of Galactic politics, the Jedi fail to recognize his vulnerability to the powers of the Dark Side. He is frequently angry, frustrated, and desirous of praise and promotion. After refusing to grant Anakin a promotion to the rank of master, the Jedi Council attempts to cajole him into spying on Palpatine, not realizing they’re playing exactly into the chancellor’s hands. Only when it is far too late does Mace Windu sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. Once they realize their mistake, Yoda and Obi Wan attempt to turn the tide—not recognizing that it’s too late. They flee, waiting for another opportunity this time to use Anakin’s children to overthrow the emperor. By hiding Luke’s true parentage from him, Yoda and Obi Wan repeat the same mistakes they made with Anakin while trying to settle a twenty year old score. Luke, however, cares more about others, especially Leia and even his father, to be seduced by the Dark Side. His desire to confront the Emperor and belief in the goodness of his father wins the day over Yoda and Obi Wan’s cynicism about Vader’s true character and motivations. 

The Machete Order represents the best that the Star Wars films have to offer. It features an appealing lead character, a complicated villain, space battles, and charming rogues. It blends the two trilogies together, using them to enhance the story of Luke Skywalker and brings thematic order to George Luca’s cinematic empire.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Hubig's Pies are Coming Back!

           On July 18, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a press release heralding the opening of a new factory for Hubig’s Pies in Jefferson Parish. The factory, set to open in 2020, will mark the return of Hubig’s Pies to Louisiana and the Greater New Orleans area for the first time since 2012, when the original factory, located in the Marigny, burned down.  Over the years, many of New Orleans culinary staples like king cakes and beignets have become well-known. But Hubig’s Pies were, in the words of food writer Ian McNulty, “one of the subtle homegrown pleasures of New Orleans that the city kept for itself.”  

            The Hubig’s Pie itself is a fruit-filled turnover covered in glaze. Once sold in grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores, Hubig’s pies were a staple food item for Louisianans as they grew up.  Governor Edwards described how as a child, he “went to a store and at the cash register you always had the cardboard boxes of Hubig's pies. My favorite was the apple pie. I was always really disappointed if I went through the checkout and I wasn't able to get one of those pies.”  

            Hubig’s Pies arrived in New Orleans in 1922, the brainchild of Simon Hubig, a Spanish immigrant, who arrived in the United States after World War I. He opened the first Hubig’s location in Fort Worth, Texas in 1922 before expanding across the southeastern United States. The Great Depression led to the closure of all of the Hubig’s locations except New Orleans. Unlike other large-scale bakeries, Hubig's relied on workers to produce its pies. The New Orleans location, with its prominent red and blue metal sign, became ubiquitous across New Orleans. Savory Simon, the company’s mascot, was featured prominently on the packaging and advertising.

            By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, Hubig’s was producing over 25,000 pies per week. Flavors included: apple, lemon, peach, pineapple, chocolate, coconut, blueberry, and sweet potato. Hubig’s Pies were also popular as gifts for parties and weddings. During the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run, the company ran a special “Hu-Dat” Pie. Hurricane Katrina damaged the exterior of the Hubig’s factory, but the company managed to reopen in early 2006. 

            On July 27, 2012, the Hubig’s bakery caught on fire in the early morning hours. The fire burned quickly and within an hour the entire building had collapsed. The company announced plans to rebuild, but insurance disputes and other delays quickly piled up. In 2015, the New Orleans City Planning Commission approved plans to build residential buildings on the factory site. Currently, the site is home to condos. 

            While Governor Edwards announced Hubig’s return, the company does not have a specific factory site yet. They have only been granted a small business guarantee loan from the state. The company has stressed that this is an early, but positive step in bringing the company back to life. They also announced they have no plans to change the pie’s famous recipe.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

New Orleans Fried Chicken

New Orleans is known for its rich food culture--Cajun food, Creole food, gumbo, jambalaya, fried seafood, turtle soup, bananas foster, the list goes on and on and on. But New Orleans is also known for its fried chicken. The Crescent City is the birthplace of Popeye's and the New Orleans area restaurants use a special spice blend created by founder Al Copeland that can't be found elsewhere.

A few years ago, Nola.com created a guide to New Orleans fried chicken. In the video below you can see the best fried chicken New Orleans has to offer, but if you want to try it for yourself you'll just have to come visit!