One for me, and one for me. (Photo by BuBBy)

The American Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start to the summer, and men everywhere are dragging out the grill and stocking up on thick T-bone steaks. The sad fact is that the vast majority of those incredible slabs of meat will turn out dry and lacking in flavor.

Grilling a tasty, healthy steak is one of the Man Skills I’ve written about before. With a little care and preparation, you can enjoy the best steak you’ve ever had.

Buy the Best Cut

There’s a lot of confusion over just which cuts of beef are best for grilling. Some say tenderloin and filet mignon are best, but the fact is that while they’re the most tender cuts on the cow, they’re not the most flavorful. Others will direct you to the cheaper cuts, like flank or hanger. However, your tradeoff for flavor is tenderness, and you’ll have to marinate them and make sure not to cook them past medium rare for best chewability.

The cut with the single best balance of tenderness and flavor is the ribeye. However, a marbling of fat goes with that, so make sure you eat it on your cheat day. The ribeye is also the most expensive cut on the cow. If cost or fat content is a factor, grab yourself a nice top sirloin. Once again, you’ll want to cook a sirloin fairly rare, but it’s flavorful and inexpensive. In the middle between the two is the New York cut, with the marbling of a loin steak (it’s from the loin) and a little more flavor.

Pick up your steak at least a day or two before you’re going to grill it. Buy your steak freshly cut from a butcher and not in the Styrofoam packages at the supermarket. Your cut will ideally will have a ring of fat around the edge (trim it off when the steak is ready to eat – it helps hold the juices in when cooking). Get yourself grass-fed beef if possible—it’s healthier and tastier than feed-lot beef and the cow had a better life too.

The best thickness for grilling is between 1 and 1-1/2 inches. Steaks that are too thick may require oven-baking after you sear them on the grill, unless you like them rare.

Prep the Meat

No matter what cut you buy, it’ll taste better with a little forethought. A few simple steps can make or break your steak:

  1. When you get the meat home, take it out of the butcher paper and put it in the fridge, on a plate and wrapped in a paper towel to draw moisture out of the meat. You can do this for up to four days before grilling—change the paper towel if it gets too bloody.
  2. Take the meat out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you put it on the grill. The closer it is to room temperature, the better it will cook.
  3. Use a simple rub to season your steak. Coat your steak in just enough oil so the ingredients stick (any oil with a high “smoke point” will do: vegetable, seed, light olive oil—extra-virgin smokes too soon), then rub some sea salt and fresh ground pepper into the meat. I use a little cayenne myself to give it a slight kick.
  4. Get that grill hot! The goal is to sear the steak as quickly as possible to lock in the juices, and the hotter the grill, the better it will sear.

The great gas vs. charcoal debate is really not that big an element in the flavor of the meat. Instead, let your pocketbook and ability to keep the grill clean determine your tool of choice. That said, charcoal grills can get hotter than gas, so if you’re torn, that’s the single best reason to go with charcoal.

Finally, the Grill

Now you’re ready to cook the thing. Believe it or not, you’ve reached the easiest part of the whole production.

  1. Put the steak on the hot grill.
  2. Now leave it alone. No poking, prodding, checking the grill lines on the bottom, and never, ever, cut into the steak to check the color.
  3. After 4 to 5 minutes, turn it over with tongs or a spatula, not that giant sharp fork that came with the grill.
  4. Continue to leave it alone, about 4-5 minutes for rare, 6-8 minutes for medium-rare, and 10 minutes for medium. Grills can vary—this is a good reason to practice!
  5. Instead of cutting the meat, check it for doneness with your finger. The more thoroughly cooked the meat, the firmer it will be.
  6. Remove the steak from the grill and put it in aluminum foil to rest for 5-10 minutes. Guard it, and explain to your hungry friends that it’s for their own good. If you cut into a steak before it has properly rested, its juices (and flavor) will run out all over the plate and all your careful preparation will be ruined.

There are a world of steak cuts and different rubs and marinades you can use. Experiment and practice. If you master the art of preparing the perfect steak, you’ll soon find no summer weekend will go by without an invite to a barbecue. (Don’t forget a cool, healthy salad!)

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It's waiting for you...

Today is Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Yes, these days there’s a Sunday Night game, but that’s a made-for-TV creation. Today over a half-million people will fill ballparks across America in one of our traditional signs that spring has arrived.

A fact you may not know about me is that I was a baseball writer for about seven years. In addition to starting one of the first combination statistical analysis/humor baseball sites on the Web, I regularly contributed opinions and analysis to national radio programs and was an ESPN Radio correspondent at the 2001 All-Star Game. I since wandered away from baseball as a career move, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped following it. There will always be a thrill I feel when I first enter the ballpark, and a game is still a great way to relax on a warm summer afternoon.

If you’re thinking about joining the crowd at your city’s ballpark, I’ve got some tips that will help you set the tone for a great day at the game. It’s a bit of a long read, but if you’d like some strategies to save time and money while enjoying yourself to the max, it’s worth the time.

Ticketing Basics

Get your tickets as far before game day as you can. If you’ve set a date for your visit to the ballyard, order the ducats as soon as they’re available. In fact, begin your planning in the winter when possible, before single game tickets become available, and mail in your request.

For some reason, most teams keep a special stash of decent seats for their mail-order customers, and the handling charges always beat TicketMaster. Simply mail a check equal to the highest-priced tickets you’d want, and when tickets become available the kindly elderly ladies in the mail room (or so I imagine) will send you the best they’ve got along with a check for the difference. Except for the White Sox, that is, who sent me the refund as a coupon that could only be redeemed at the ballpark.

If your game isn’t that far off, however, your choices are more limited. If you can pick up tickets from the ballpark or official team shop, you’ll save a lot on TicketMaster fees. Most teams also make bargain seats available for under-attended games or specific nights of the week. See your team’s website for specifics. If the game is sold out, you may need to turn to the aftermarket. You can try Craigslist or Ebay, but Stubhub is becoming the most efficient ticket marketplace, meaning you’re most likely to find the best price there, and your tickets are guaranteed to be valid.

Don’t use ticket brokers: their tickets are often outrageously marked up, and these days often include TicketMaster-type fees to boot.

The better you know your ballpark, the better the seats and the fewer the surprises you’ll run into. For example, you might have loved your seats in section 124 last time, but section 123 is not necessarily right next door. Know the good cheap seats and the bad expensive seats. For example, Seattle’s Safeco Field has $20 upper-deck “view reserved” seats that are approximately a quarter-mile farther from the field of play than the $7 bleachers.

Some modern ballparks make it possible to purchase a cheap ticket, then view the game from a number of excellent standing areas. You’ve seen the throngs in left field in Cleveland, and above the out-of-town scoreboard at Camden Yards. Join them, especially if it’s warm. You might make a few friends, or meet a woman who loves baseball as much as you do.

The trickiest proposition is the day-of-game ticket. This is where your experience is made or broken on the homework you’ve done. Is the game close to sold out? If so, chances are you’ll have to take one of those bad expensive seats—all the cheapies go quick when crowds are big. Some parks have cheap day-of-game tickets, but after you factor in the five hours you’ll spend in line for them, they may not be such a bargain.

Dealing With Scalpers

A great alternative to the day-of-game ticket at the park is the throng of entrepreneurs outside, dealing in previously-owned tickets. However, you must never, ever, approach a scalper without knowing three things:

  • The location and price of every seat in the park
  • What a legitimate ticket looks like (there may be more than one kind)
  • The law

That third one is important, not only because it may get you arrested, but because it can get you a better deal. Really. Where scalping is defined only as “sale for more than face value,” you’ll find many of the black marketeers selling for face or below. Most parks on the West Coast have had discount scalpers in droves. Beware of areas where resale is completely forbidden, however, such as Anaheim.

Find Parking

After you’ve got the best, most cost-effective seats you could find, parking is the next “gotcha” item. And if you’re circling the park, waiting to fight with ten families in Ford Explorers for the last free on-street metered spot, you’ve got a lot more patience, not to mention huevos, than I.

Studying your ballpark’s access is just as important as knowing the seating chart. Consider all your ballpark options. If possible (as in many urban parks) just say no to the car altogether. Wrigley Field, for example, is in a residential neighborhood that loves to tow, and you’re better off taking the train. Same with Yankee Stadium, where the only parking garage approximately the size of your garage. Other stadiums, like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, have huge lots and are difficult to get to other than by auto.

However, in some cities (like my native Seattle), it is possible to find safe, free on-street parking, if you plan ahead and know the area. Arriving as early as possible helps. If your plan is to get to the park by car just before the first pitch, you had better budget for a pay lot.

Arrive Early

I love arriving at the park for batting practice. Not only do I beat the crowds (especially here on the West coast), but it’s a chance to have a cool one, relax, and watch some monster homers, even if they don’t actually count. All parks open at least 1-1/2 hours before game time.

However, be wary of bobblehead days, cap days, bat nights, and other big giveaway nights. Parents with children often begin laying siege for these items hours before gates open, and if you’ve ever had to wait in a long line with a large number of entire families, you know it isn’t pleasant for anyone. In these circumstances, arrive about a half-hour after the gates open. The initial line will have been assimilated into the park, and there may still be some of the goodies left.

Breeze Through Security

As you enter the park, two things will likely happen: 1) A kindly older gent will tear your ticket; 2) A younger, much less kindly gent will make you open your bag and/or poke and feel it.

Actually, most parks no longer tear tickets, in favor of bar code readers that instantly tell the team when you entered, which gate, what path you are likely to take to your seat, and the chances of selling you a collectible logo helmet keychain. The bag check, however, is not so much to prevent you from smuggling a bomb as to keep you from smuggling in sodas or beer. If you choose to try getting in with contraband fluids, you’ll probably have to hide them on your person. (There are no pat-down searches at any big-league park—yet).

The New-Stadium Gauntlet

As of 2010, almost every Major League Baseball team has a fully modern ballpark, and you may notice a colorful array of concession and gift stands on the way to your seats. You may also notice that your seats are an awfully long way from where you entered the grounds. These two observations are not coincidence. The goal in the new ballyards is to tempt you with food, drink, souvenirs, and possibly even cell phones. All marked up above the price you’d pay on the street outside the stadium. Don’t give in.

Remember the four most important words to anyone taking in a major-league baseball game: Eat before you go.

A night at the ballpark will always be less expensive if you’re full when you walk in the gate. Get your drink on in the neighborhood bars—they’ll usually have drink specials, and you can bond with other fans. Then you can sober up during the game.

Find Your Seats

Some ballparks divide their seating by sections, others by aisles. Dodger Stadium, for example, puts all the odd sections on one side of home plate and the evens on the other. If you have seats in section 26, and you simply walk one over from section 25 and try and kick out the people who are “in your seats,” people will look at you like you flunked the $100 question on Millionaire. (In the old Kingdome, the seats were divided by aisles, with odds on one side of the football end zone and evens on the other, with chairs 1-16 to the right of each aisle and 100-116 on the left. This is a major reason why they blew the place up.)

If you aren’t absolutely certain where you’re going, ask the usher. He (or she, if you’re in the good seats at Chavez Ravine) is there to help, and you don’t have to tip—even if he wipes down your seat. Fortunately, the number of parks with tip-fawning ushers is dwindling, but I remember seeing a game at the old Tiger Stadium, where after swabbing my seat with a dirty rag, my usher just stood there.

If you notice any large view obstructions, look at your ticket. If it doesn’t make note of the view-obstructed nature of your seat, go to the nearest “fan service” booth and register a complaint. If there’s another seat to be had, you’ll have it. (Good luck at Fenway, however.)

If You Must Consume

Even if you were smart and had a delicious meal before the game, at some point everyone feels like they might want some food or beverage. Let’s face it, a cold beer or soda is downright necessary on a hot summer day at the ballyard. But if you want to partake as cheaply as possible, understand that this puts you at odds with the team running the stadium, whose goal is to convince you that the only way to truly enjoy this sport is through conspicuous consumption.

Fortunately, almost all teams let you bring in outside food. Do that. In a pinch, almost every park has a bargain item or two, and I’m not referring to their airline-size bags of peanuts. You’ll have to do some looking, and be open to various food and beverage options, but you’ll find something. In many parks, the regular hot dog is a good buy (especially at Dodger Stadium or Jacobs Field), or even a great one if they supply free sauerkraut. It’s like including a salad with the dog…if you like sauerkraut. In other parks, it’s overpriced. Know what you’re prepared to pay, and don’t let the team convince you that it’s “normal” to pay more. You won’t die of thirst if you don’t get that $5 soda. Find the water fountain.

Pay Attention

Pay attention to the game. I will readily admit to carrying on in-depth conversations during a game, on topics ranging from the dropped-third-strike rule to the family tree of my cat, but the game comes first. If you’re turning to look at your companion over half the time, and any of the time while plays are taking place, you should consider either going to a sportsbar or getting a room, depending on how you feel about your companion. If you ever have to ask “what happened,” you need to focus.

Cheer Right

Do you know why all over MLB teams are using their video screens to urge you to “Crank it Up”? It’s because the new “family-oriented” game attracts thousands of familial units, all of whom apparently used up their talk time at the movie theater. This has not gone unnoticed by the media, who employ an endless variety of second-string pitchers to tell you it’s a shame how these modern fans sometimes yell unflattering things at opposing players. That’s an insult to the traditions of baseball.

When something good happens, cheer. When something bad happens, boo. When Alex Rodriguez comes up to bat, loudly ask him “where’s Madonna?” As long as you don’t use profanity or recount Old Testament tortures (yes, this has actually happened) no jury in the world will convict you. The best heckling is heard in the Wrigley Field bleachers, where decades of losing has resulted in a hardy breed of fans, who seem to spend their off hours thinking up new ways to distract the opposition.

Keep the cell phone in your pocket, unless you’re tweeting game events, and just say no to the Wave. (I’m personally responsible for the fact that there was not a Wave at the 2001 All-Star Game. Ask me about it sometime.)

Avoid the Post-Game Crush

After the game, everyone will get up and try to leave at exactly the same time (if you’re on the West coast, they started leaving in the seventh). They’re not getting anywhere fast, and neither will you. Sit back. Breathe. Watch the grounds crew prep the field for tomorrow’s workouts. (Of course, if you’re at Yankee Stadium, you’re safer taking your chances with the crowd.)

In the days when Busch Stadium was Astroturfed, they used to make a big deal out of unrolling the tarp onto the infield. At parks with retractable roofs, they may perform a ceremonial opening or closing of the roof. Take it in. Relax. Then, when you can at least get up the steps to the concourse, head out.

Walk around the neighborhood, if there is one. Tailgate if it’s allowed. Watch the gridlock and laugh at the drivers. Hit a sportsbar if you’re at Fenway or Coors or Wrigley. In fact, this is the best thing about the new breed of urban parks ­ not much parking, but a lot of places to wind down.

In short, relax and make it easier on yourself. Getting behind the wheel and spending the next half-hour cursing the other drivers won’t help anyone.

Congratulations! You’ve made it through a Major League Baseball game with your sanity and pocketbook intact.

Are there any strategies I’ve missed that work for you? Let me know in the comments.

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