Friday, January 22, 2016

The Best of 2015

This is my fifth year of publishing a list of my best experiences of the previous year. 2015 was not the big year for travel to exotic places that 2014 was, but was still chock full of memorable good times.

10. Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati

My son took me to my first All-Star game ever. A short Hummer drive down I-75, we arrived several hours early to a driving rainstorm, which we neatly avoided getting wet. We made our way to The Yard House, which I was surprised we could even get in the door to enjoy a few pre-game Kilkenny beers. The pre-game activities were really cool, with the announcement of each team’s all-time top players, their “Franchise Four”. The Reds Franchise Four, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose, were introduced on the field to thundering applause. The finale was the on-field introduction of the four "Greatest Living Players," Sandy Koufax, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Seeing these living legends put goosebumps on my arms and a lump in my throat. The game itself was mediocre, with the American League winning 6-3, with little drama.

9. Ohio State Football Winning the First Four Team National Championship

The most improbable ending for a Buckeyes team that played, at best, OK compiling a 11-1 record, including a bad early loss to Virginia Tech and a double OT squeaker at Penn State. Hope was low on making the four team playoff, and even more so after losing their second starting quarterback, JT Barrett, to a leg injury during the Michigan game. Third-string QB Cardale Jones made his first start and led OSU to an absolutely stunning 59-0 shutout of #11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, impressing the selection committee enough to make the top four. Nobody gave OSU a chance against Alabama, and after falling behind 21-6 in the second quarter, it looked bad. OSU then scored four unanswered touchdowns to take a thirteen point lead in the third quarter. Alabama finally answered, closing the game to within six points. But late in the fourth quarter Ezekiel Elliott flat out outran the entire Alabama defense for an 85-yard touchdown and a final score of 42-35. The championship game against Oregon, also a supposedly faster team than the Buckeyes, was a close affair until Elliott ran for the final three touchdowns of the game and a lopsided 42-20 victory.

8. Tour and Dipping Bottles at Maker’s Mark

I’ve been a member of the Maker’s Mark Ambassador’s Club since 2008 when my son nominated me. The first benefit of the program is a creative Christmas gift. In 2015 that was a Maker’s Mark headband which I’ll use in the hot tub. One year it was an ice cube tray which made four, two-inch diameter spheres, perfect for chilling bourbon without diluting it too much. The second benefit was having my name burned into a barrel of Maker’s Mark (along with dozens of other ambassadors) and getting the purchase two liters of bourbon from that barrel. It took seven years for the bourbon to age but finally the day came to make the trip to Loretto, Kentucky, take the tour and hand dip my bottles myself. I also picked up and dipped a special Cask Strength bottle for the holidays.

7. Steelers Game at Heinz Field

Since I started dating my wife we’ve made numerous trips to her native Pittsburgh to see her family and have seen many sights, but not a Steelers game at Heinz Field, which has been on her bucket list forever. We enlisted one of her son’s help and he reached out to a friend with family on the Steelers staff and snagged us a pair of tickets, and a great parking pass, for the November 1st game against the Cincinnati Bengals. With other commitments in September and October, we just couldn’t make an earlier date and we expected a very chilly, if not downright frigid, game. But things worked out exactly the opposite and we had a gorgeous, sunny, mid-70’s day, nice to walk around outside before the game. Other than being beat by the Bengals, it was a perfect day.

6. Catamaran Ride to Isla Saona

A nice spring vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic was highlighted by a trip out to Isla Saona, located off the southern coast. The trip started with a shuttle ride, transferred to a large bus, then moved on to a boat trip, where we jumped into calm waters looking for starfish. Then completed the journey to the island on the powerful catamarans. It was a partying crowd that bounced across the Caribbean Sea, dancing and drinking to the music. Lunch and beach time on the island before taking the long trek back to Punta Cana.

5. New Kitchen

The last, and by far the largest, home project was a complete reimagine and rebuild of the kitchen, a real relic from the late 1950’s. Everything was replaced, even the kitchen window. Custom-built Amish cabinets, new appliances, stone flooring and granite countertops were installed. The dual-fuel, double oven range was the real highlight, giving us a gas stove top with a real power burner, true simmering burner and griddle, along with independently controlled large and small electric ovens. Next best was the the Uba Tuba Leathered granite countertops. The leathering provides a textured feel in place of the typical smooth granite look, and hides fingerprints very well.

4. Pirates vs Cubs at Wrigley Field

Wrigley is the place to watch a baseball game. An old-time neighborhood stadium filled with nostalgia and Cub-crazy fans. While I’ve been to a few games there, including one seen from the Wrigley rooftops, my wife’s brother got us tickets to a late September game five rows behind home plate, a little bit on the third base side, and again on an absolutely beautiful day. That view totally immersed me into the game and watching pitchers throw fastballs so quick they’re hardly more than a blur gave me a new appreciation of how good major league batters must be to make contact with the near-invisible baseball. Pirates won 4-0, making my Pittsburgh wife happy but over 40,000 local fans not so much.

3. One World Observatory in NYC

We went to New York City for a black-tie wedding in October, yet again, in awesome weather. We had already bought Priority tickets to the One World Observatory, which sits atop One World Trade Center, the beautiful replacement of the two towers destroyed by the 9/11 terrorists which I had visited many years ago. We grabbed a cab for the ride from The New York Palace Hotel to Lower Manhattan, entertained by the street savvy cab driver, so much so that we arranged for her to take us to the Newark airport the next day. The choice of spending the extra money for Priority tickets was a good one, as the line was long for the regular tickets. With the Priority tickets we bypassed the ticket line and the regular elevator line and within five minutes were atop the building. We rented an iPad which pointed out all the various buildings and points of interest, and tell stories about them. Aside from the beautiful views of New York and New Jersey, it was gratifying to know firsthand that those terrorists were the biggest losers of 9/11, and America will always rise above them, and the clouds.

2. “Book of Mormon” Play in Chicago

My wife’s brother and sister-in-law took us to see “Book of Mormon” in April at the Bank of America Theatre in downtown Chicago. For those who are not aware, this play pushes the boundaries of comedy when related to religion and race. Written by the creators of the TV show “South Park”, very much known for its political incorrectness, I guess that should have been expected. But with the appropriately open mind about such things, the play was absolutely hilarious, and one you walk away from saying “I want to see that again”.

1. Zac Brown Band Concert in Columbus

As great as 2015 was, crowning the #1 experience was easy. Zac Brown and his band put on the best concert I have ever seen. They played all the big hits including “Toes”, “Knee Deep” and “Chicken Fried”. They had an acoustical segment, like an “Unplugged”, that was beautiful. But what put goosebumps on my arms was their performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, every bit as good as the original.