Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Shadetree Mechanic Chronicles

I changed the oil in my car last weekend.  That hardly seems worthy of note, but what was routine a generation ago is now cause for either celebration or questioning one's sanity.  I feel caught between generations.  I am in lockstep with most of my era because this was the first time I had not taken this car to a mechanic for an oil change, but Grandpa's "if I can't do it, it can't be done" handyman/inventor spirit resonates through my guilty conscience all the time.  I finally got up the gumption (and found enough time in a sportsless weekend) to do the job myself.

In the abstract, changing the oil in a car is not difficult.  Messy, perhaps, but not terribly challenging.  In my case, it's a bit more involved.  Partial dismantling of the car is involved.

First, the car must be on a lift or jack stands.  Then, the right rear wheel must be removed.  And the right rear wheel liner must be pulled back.  And don't forget to take off the rocker panel cover that runs the entire length of the right side of the car. 

Now we are ready to drain the oil.  Problem:  the plug is too close to the jackstand location to allow the oil recycling container to rest below, so I have to hold a spare bucket by hand to catch the oil that cascades out.  Of course, I have to jam the plug back in halfway through the process because the car holds about 8 quarts in the reservoir, and the bucket only holds about 4.  Dump out the oil from the bucket into the recycling container, pull the plug again, and resume.  Messy.  Even though I now resemble one of Red Adair's fieldhands, I resolve to put off running through half a roll of paper towels to clean my hands, arms and possibly forehead until after I have removed and replaced the oil filter (holding onto the filter with one hand and the dump bucket in the other to keep at least some portion of the oil off the floor).

So, oil drained and filter replaced.  Done?  Not even close.  This being a comically over-engineered German vehicle, there is another drain plug under the engine.  Plus, there is another oil filter, tucked away where it cannot be seen or touched until several hoses underneath the engine are disconnected.   The crankcase plug is easy to handle because the recycle container fits under it, but the second filter is a nightmare.  It took a solid ten minutes of crawling under the car and squinting into road-grimey crevices, and repeated retreats from under the car to recheck my reference materials, before I could even find the thing.  Adding injury to insult, the filter dumped its contents down both of my forearms as I searched for a way to smuggle it past engine parts and suspension pieces.  

Finally, all the old oil was out, the new filters were in, and the plugs were tight.  Oh rapture!  All that remained was to fill it back up with 11 quarts of oil.  Naturally, the oil filler is tucked away in the corner of the engine bay under the side panel of the body and cannot be accessed directly, making a simple fill-up impossible.  After eight-plus years of ownership, I have learned of these quirks and have acquired the necessary tools, including funnels, necessary to deal with these design ... challenges.  Eight quarts in, the car decided it needed some time to digest the new oil and burped several ounces of oil back up the filler pipe, where it landed on portions of the engine and muffler assembly inaccessible to humans.  My fellow commuters may think differently, but I find nothing alarming about trailing a cloud of oil smoke behind me for the several days it will take to burn off all of that overflow. 

Thankfully, after firing the engine up to allow the oil to flow from the reservoir into the crankcase, thus clearing space for the remaining three quarts (yes, it is standard operating procedure to top up the oil with the engine on), the oily part of the job was done.  I cleaned the rocker panel cover and wheel before reattaching them to the car, lowered the car off the jacks, and congratulated myself on the successful completion of a task I should have known how to do years ago.

Then I spent the rest of the afternoon scrubbing the garage floor, trying to remove evidence of what appeared to be a visit from the Exxon Valdez. 

Monday, June 18, 2012


Tonight, San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain starts his first game since he pitched a perfect game last Wednesday night.  Only 22 times in over 140 years of professional baseball has a pitcher thrown a complete game, one in which not a single opposing runner reaches base.  Amid the avalanche of events and statistics generated by the game for over a century, a perfect game stands out as a unique and singularly impressive achievement.

That Matt Cain was the first pitcher in the history of the Giants, a franchise with a 128-year history, is equally as intriguing.  The organization boasts some of the finest players ever to take the mound, including Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal.  Each of those heralded pitchers threw a no-hitter in his career (Mathews had two), but no Giants pitcher ever threw a perfect game before Cain managed the feat. 

Cain is very much in the mold of those great players of the past.  Drafted by the Giants out of high school, Cain was a big, strong country boy who could throw hard.  He has spent his entire career with the Giants organization.  Cain made it to the majors in 2005 when he was still only 20 years old.  Since then, the Giants have had quite a ride.  They went through an uncomfortable era of celebrating a tainted record when Barry Bonds set the career home run record in 2007 amid criminal proceedings against steroid providers. The team went through a fallow period after Bonds retired, as the franchise shifted from relying on veterans to young players who were not ready to shoulder the load.  Then Tim Lincecum burst on the scene, winning the 2008 Cy Young award in an otherwise dismal season, and repeating the feat in 2009.  Buster Posey arrived to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2010, leading the team to the first World Series title in San Francisco.

Through it all, Cain pitched solid if unspectacular ball, enduring an almost comical lack of run support.  Lincecum, space cadet Brian Wilson and the young, unflappable Madison Baumgarner garnered much of the attention for San Francisco's well-regarded pitching staff, while Cain simply continued to give the Giants a chance to win nearly every time he took the mound.  As 2012 rolled around and Cain entered the last year of his contract, Giants fans finally realized, as they contemplated life without him, that losing Cain to free agency would be a terrible blow to the team.  Lincecum is more decorated, but also more delicate, with his success dependent upon the perfect execution of his unique and unorthodox delivery (as his miserable 2012 season has shown, that delivery does not take much to go out of tune).  Cain, barely 27, is the longest-serving Giants player, emerging as the lead-by-example clubhouse leader nobody wanted to see leave.

The ownership group got the job done just before the season began, signing Cain to a big-money deal that keeps him in San Francisco through at least 2017.  Long term contracts for pitchers often work out poorly for teams, as the risk of injury and declining effectiveness over time are an ever-present threat, moreso than with position players.  More than one player has also been observed to put up eye-popping statistics during a contract "walk year," only to regress back to the mean or worse once he signs the big deal and loses the hunger that led to the huge contract.  The Giants, believing they are in the heart of a rare opportunity to go deep into the playoffs for several years running, took a significant but necessary gamble by signing Cain to a massive deal.

They need not have worried.  Cain threw a 1-hitter in his home debut this season.  He followed that up with a duel against the Phillies' Cliff Lee in which he pitched nine innings of shutout ball (Lee was more than equal to the task, pitching ten shutout innings) in a game many hailed as one of the best in recent memory.  Cain emerged as one of the top three pitchers in baseball in just about every meaningful category.  Still, it took him until June to balance his career record at 75-75, despite a career earned run average under 3.5 runs per game (a miracle in the steroid era).  In a year that Lincecum has struggled mightily, Cain finally took his place as the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff, even though few outside of the Bay Area knew who he was.

And then the June 13th game against the Houston Astros happened.  In the middle of a week of beautiful weather as schoolkids enjoyed their first days of summer vacation, Cain mowed through the Astros order and delivered what some have called the best game ever.  The game began with an uncharacteristic explosion of Giants offense, putting 10 runs on the board before the fifth inning was over in their best performance of the year at home.  As usual, Cain's excellence had gone unnoticed in the excitement over a rare glut of home runs.  With the win no longer in doubt, however, the attention of the broadcasters and the crowd turned to Cain's quiet perfection.  Cain delivered pinpoint control and was rewarded with bunches of strikeouts.  Somehow, a long drive to the fence stayed in the yard in the sixth, and then, in the seventh, the right fielder (previously unknown Gregor Blanco) ranged into the wide expanse of nearly straightaway center field to catch a deep drive in a full-extension dive at the warning track.  It seems that every no-hitter needs a stellar defensive play or two, and it is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a better catch in a game like this.  (I would embed the video if it were not for Blogger's terrible new embedding procedures; however, it is worth the time to click through to the MLB link.)

As the game wound down, the fans' excitement was palpable.  Even though we always have the Giants games on, I had not watched an entire game all season, but by chance had turned this one on in the first inning.  After dinner, as I puttered around the kitchen, I turned the radio on to keep tabs on the game, something I had not done since the World Series.  At that point, I was enjoying the beefy offensive performance, but I also took note of the fact that Cain had given up nothing to the Astros.  As the evening went on, I settled in behind the computer with the TV on, participating in an online chat of fans and fantasy baseball geeks tracking the game.  I felt the same joyful, tense nervousness I felt during the playoff run of 2010, and the full house at AT&T Park looked and sounded just like it did in those days, too.  It was the 2010 World Series experience compressed into a single evening.  Every pitch was meaningful, every movement fraught with significance.

After Blanco's miraculous catch (his catch would have made a highlight reel under any circumstances, but he had no business being in that part of the oufield to begin with), it was clear to anyone who believes in the gospel of the baseball gods that something truly special was in the offing.  My Facebook friends who are Giants fans went uncharacteristically quiet in observance of the superstitions about not talking about no-hitters in progress, and I was not about to break the commenting embargo. Like every other fan, I lived and died by every pitch. 

As the eighth inning rolled into the ninth, I got Michael out of bed to witness what could, I fervently hoped, be history in the making.  After two fly balls to the left fielder to get the game down to its last out, the next batter squibbed a ball to the third baseman.  He backed up on the ball and stumbled slightly, so while our hearts were in our throats, he had to throw from his back foot all the way across the diamond.  His arm was strong and his aim was true, history was made, and we could all breathe again.  27 up, 27 down, 14 of them by strikeout, Cain's career high and matched only by the immortal Sandy Koufax for strikeouts in a perfect game.

Matt Cain is not a flashy guy.  His perfect game will merit but a small blip in Sports Illustrated.  He does most of his work long after the media power-brokers on the East Coast have gone to bed, and is rarely mentioned in talking-head discussions.  But he is exactly the kind of player around whom a franchise can build, rally and win.  A no-hitter was going to happen for Cain eventually, and the perfect game was just ... perfect.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Not Coming Soon To Fodor's Travel Guides

In a fine display of civic good humor (or humour, in this instance), the Oregon town of Boring will become a sister city with the English hamlet of Dull.

May they both enjoy many years of mediocre trinket sales.