Monday, December 06, 2010

Herbie

One of the great friends of my childhood was Herbie Farnsworth. Herbie, later Herb,now Herbert, was in most of my classes in elementary school and his father was one of my little leauge baseball coaches.The first grown man to allow me to curse in front of him. There were times in my life when the Farnsworths probably believed that I had moved into their house,especially when we were 13 and used Herb's room as our base for listening to rock music and calling girls.

By the time we were sophomores in high school our old friendship was drifting.Sometime in the 8th or 9th grade Herb had started dipping snuff and switched from listening from Dylan to Ernest Tubbs.He then joined the Future Farmers of America.I had joined the debate team which meant that I had to spend a lot of time after school working and pretending to be smart. I recall walking home from the bus stop one day in tenth grade, after debate and running into Herb and John Phillips walking past in the other direction, both spitting snuff.Even a 16 year old can pick up on that metaphor.We all had chosen our paths, which of us having picked the better way, only God would ever know.


The thing was though, there was never really an oficial parting of the ways,never an argument or fight or petty disagreement.I would run into Herb from time to time and while there was none of the old comradery there had once been, there was always friendship and it is too bad that that was not enough to keep us closer.

Throughout high school, Herb developed a drinking problem. It started when he and John took a job in Fayeteville one summer hauling hay. By the time the summer was over both John and Herb could best be described as serious rednecks. Herb had developed a propensity of drinking a case of beer in one night.One unfortunate night he drank his case before driving home on Texas Highway 71 to Houston from a dance at la Grange. In those days Highway 71 included a dangerous little fork in the road inviting you to go left or right. Herb passsed on both offers and continued straight into an enormous Oak tree. The last time I recall being in Herb's room at his home was right after this while he recovered froma broken collarbone. He assured me that his being drunk had kept him relaxed and saved his life.

After high school I would run into Herb once in a blue moon. He had become a mechanic, and I was told that he was a good one. He had(although I did not know it) obtained a college degree.He had been married at least a couple of times and he had two kids from those marriages.I ran into his mother and father with somewhat more frequency and always maintained very cordial relations with them. Mr Farnsworh always called me his "old second baseman".

One day a couple of years ago I read a story online that Herb had shot and killed his wife.I checked a couple of things and confirmed it.I had a hard time keeping up with the case but finally figured out that Herb had been sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter.Herb, at the time was 55 or 56.

What do you do with information like that ? In hindsight I now know that I should have contacted him. I don't know why this seemed such a hard decision at the time.I have since learned a lot more about this particular dynamic and have come to realize that being emotionally supportive is a truly difficult thing. Especially for men.

As anyone who reads this is likely to know, my life has changed quite a bit over the last year and I see some things, especially regarding emotional support with much more clarity that I ever had in the past.I decided to send Herb a letter and see if he would let me come see him. This is a difficult process in the Texas Criminal Justice system.Indeed,if I were not an attorney I would have not received permission to visit.Even with that, the system threw up a couple of roadblocks that I finally managed to manuver through.I think that probably the vast number of Texas citizens would agree with being tough on the inmates.Here is a guy who killed someone. That's all anyone knows. They don't know and don't care that this inmate and I once had a very wide ranging and productive discussion on how many holes it would take to fill the Royal Albert Hall. That he and I would call up radio stations at the begining of Christmas season and get the DJs to let us sing Jingle Bells on the air. They never sat in the outfield seats at double headers at Colt Stadium and poured water over the top of their heads in an attempt to fight off dehydration. All of these things I did, and more, with Herbie/Herb and if they were not worthwhile, why would I remember them so clearly.

I am not going to talk about Herb's crime or our discussion.Everything he said to me was privleged anyway. That's one thing that the state can't take away from you. They can have a guard stare at you through a window for a couple of hours and make you talk on a phone through glass to your friend and say that it is done for your safety, and frankly, it is.The number of people incarcerated in this state makes it impossible for them to check on all the Royal Albert Hall stories you might tell in mitigation.Still, it hurts so bad. The years slip seemlessly away and you just can't believe that some one is treating your old friend like this.Then you remember how you treated him. How you waited two years before even trying to find out where we was locked up.

Toward the end of our true friendship Herb and I would sometimes get a bag of baseballs and an old bat his father had that was shaped like a fungo bat. It was a Kiki Kyler model.Herb and I would head over to the pony leauge field and he would hit fly balls to me until I was exhausted or darkness feel, whichever was first.I would stand in medium center fieled and he would hit ball after ball to my right, my left,over my head,in front of me. It was great exercise and we only did it at the very tail end of the seaon,late october, early November. When I had caught the last ball I was going to catch, we'd gather up all the equipment and head for home into the cool air that, if we were lucky,might even mean that Houston, Texas would have a fall that year.Sometimes we'd stop at the 7/11 and draw a softdrink out of the big ice tubs that they filled up every day. Most of the ice would be melted and very few of the drinks were left.I'd get a Grapette or a Nehi orange, Herb was a cola man, and we'd lean against those iced tanks and watch the last of the light vanish over the ballfields on Bissonett Blvd. in suburban Houston.We'd stick our empties into the cases ,which held only soft drinks, and walk together down to Herb's house where we'd part company.

There is an inevitability to parting in this life.There are only so many flyballs you can catch.But what I have found out through visiting Herb is that every parting invites a resurrection.Every parting is an opportunity, and every opportunity is a blessing.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Project Completed

About a month ago I completed a project that I have been working on for over twenty five years.I finished reading at least one critical biography of every United States President.This project would not have taken twenty five years had all of the Presidents been as interesting as Lincoln or a Roosevelt.The reading part of the project does not slow you down. It is the procrastination in making yourself read a huge biography of Zachary Taylor.I bet that I read a dozen Lincoln bios before I finished one of old "Rough and Ready" Taylor, and Taylor only served for two years !

You know that line of Presidents you can never remember ? It goes from Van Buren to Buchanan, skipping over Polk.There is a reason you can't remember them. They are not worth remembering. Please take my word for this,no ones life was ever truly enriched by reading a biography of Millard Fillmore or through making a detailed study of Franklin Pierce.The same can be said about those other yahoos who served after Lincoln and before McKinely (excepting Grover Cleveland).Let me tell you, after about 100 pages you begin wondering just how long it is going to be before Garfield can get shot, or why no one thought of shooting him before.

I can say for sure that it is impossible to "rate" the American Presidents.Any historians list of a top ten presidents or a full ranking, which you see about once a year, is malarkey.No one can prove to you that George H.W. Bush was a better Presdident than Calvin Coolidge (although he was).All you can rate is how a President approached the problems he faced in his term(s).The worse off the country is, the greater a President can be.Some perfectly good Presidents were never challanged.Some fairly mediocre men rose to the occasions presented them.Now and then there will be a perfect storm, when the worst of times meets the worst of men. James Buchanan is the classic exapmple. People spent years trying to analyze his leadership ability (none) against his experential factor (great) to see if they could figure out what went wrong.Recently historians have decided that it is more interesting to try to figure out whether he was a homosexual.For awhile historians became so interested in that that they moved on to ask the same questions about Lincoln.Today's historians are mostly trained at the "E" Network I guess.

Mostly what I felt after reading all othese biographies is a sense of wonderment that the Republic has survived its many trials.Please believe me when I tell you that your high school Civics teacher would have made a better President than at least half a dozen men who held the job.Your favorite College Prof. would comfortably fit in the top 50% of the group.With the exception of three or four Presdidents,most of us know one or more people from our lives who would done as creditable job as any of them.The only two that I am sure were indispensible were Washington and Lincoln, so really, I knew as much about Presidential greatness in the first grade as I do now.I do know more than most about presidential mediocrity.Worse than the mediocrity is the cynicism of our two party system which would allow a Warren G. Harding to make it to the top.

Rather than rank these fellows, let me just give you a few thoughts about some of them, some good, some bad.

1.John Adams- I am one who believes that Adams was as great a man as Jefferson and believe that Jefferson was overrated.I will say though that I am not at all sure that John Adams' anger control issues would not have caused havoc and destruction in a Second Term.

2.Eisenhower-This guy was close to being indispensible, but I think that Truman could have handled what he did equally well.That is, to stand as the only reasonable person in the Federal government who could have kept the country out of war between 1953-1961.The country could very easily have emerged from those eight years exhausted and decimated from a limited nuclear war or armed to the teeth and turned into a rouge bully boy. Ike had to handle not just the Russians, but the nuts in his own country and military.Try balancing that beam for eight years without a shot being fired.

3.Eisenhower-Blew the chance of four lifetimes in not putting his unprecedented prestige behind Brown vs the Board of Education ruling.Allowed for an additional ten years of unecessary pain and strife because he, himself, did not believe in the decision or would not more forcefully support it.

4.Reagan-Was able to turnaround the outlook of an entire country in about three years.A tremenbdous accomplishment equalling that of FDR.Unfortunatly he gor rid of the tax and spend liberals in Washington and replaced them with borrow and spend conservatives, setting the stage for the enormous economic lie this country found itself in three years ago.

5.Wilson- the most brilliant student of forgien policy in our nations hisory but was too arrogant to know that to lead a nation to the promised land they have to be willing to come with you.George H.W. Bush used the same ideals of internationalism and pulled a nation along with him simply because he was not an arrogant son of a bitch.

6.FDR-Overcame the traditional isolationist viewpoint of the American people and was able to enter a war againt Germany two years before it was declared.A brilliant example of leadership and patience.He showed the same leadership domestically but without the patience that would have helped some.In the end, he did change the country to where it began to think of itself along the lines of a european state with at least some cradle to grave entitlements.In other words, gave American capitalism a human face.

7.JFK-overrated,overrated,overated in every area except possibly the bedroom

8.Grover Cleveland- Thoroughly honest, amazingly industrious, understood that not being reelected, or even being very popular, was a criteria for the job.

9. Andrew Jackson-Proof that no matter how brave and resourceful you are,you are a danger in the job if you have no knowledge of fiscal or monetary policy.

10.Richard Nixon-over analyzed,over analyzed,over analyzed,but you just can't help yourself. It's like looking in a mirror and seeing that you are exactly what you fear.

more thoughts later

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Situational Ethics at the Soda Fountain

Earlier today I felt like getting a What-A-Burger, not any hamburger, a
What-A Burger. It is a sign of a rich society that one can get cravings
for the exact same food ingredients, dispensed a little differently at a
dozen different places. Everyone knows the difference in taste between
the various hamburger lines across the country. They are all pretty
good, but What-A-Burger has the taste that is closest to what a diner
hamburger was when I was a boy and so, I think out of nostalgia, I often
eat there.

As fascinating as all of this is to you, it is not what I set out to
discuss. Readers of this space will know from hard experience of my
fascination with the sale of soft drinks. Generally speaking, I confine
my complaints to the fact that the Movie Theatre has just raised their
cost of a coke to $4.50 for a "small"(which contains more liquid than
one person can consume at a movie). For $5.00, "only fifty cents more",
they will sell you a "large" which seems to be about twice as big. For
$5.25 they give you a cup the size of your head and allow free refills.

The world did not always work like this. When I grew up, the only free
refills were for ice tea and coffee and some jerks would not even refill
those. If you bought a Coke at the hamburger place they went behind the
counter and filled up a glass, usually with way too much ice. and that
was it for your meal beverage unless dad would spring for another. Then
everything changed.

Taking a cue from the movie theatres, the fast food places, egged on by
the convenience stores, discovered that you could sell a carbonated
beverage for a price never before imaginable, as long as it was served
in a 64 oz. cup or the purchaser given unlimited refills. Why does this
work ? Because the cost for the syrup of a single glass of Coke is about
$0.000052. A penny buys about 200 Cokes. They make this Coke concentrate
in Ireland and for $2.60 (this includes labor costs)they can sell you
enough concentrate for 50,000 Cokes. That is how these places will let
you drink enough soda to displace the tonnage on your average aircraft
carrier for the same amount that they will sell you one small Coke "to
go". This has changed a soft drink purchase from the realm of a
"special treat" to a hum drum activity that many, apparently mostly fat
young people, indulge in several times a day. Ask your father, if you
are under 35, was there always Coke around the house ? The answer is,
almost never, and it was a big deal to go to the drug store and sit down
and drink a soda for five or ten cents, depending on how flush you were.

These changes, unimaginable to the baby boom generation, happened very
rapidly. It is not unusual to see a child put away three of four
fountain Sprites while eating a few "chicken fingers" & fries. Because
of this rapidity in the change of soda consumption, I do not believe
that social mores have ever been truly established as to exactly what
one is entitled to once one orders a Coke at fast food place. Those of
us interested in the subject of ethics have done a disservice to the
community at large through not defining exactly what we get for our
$1.75.

To begin with, of course, one never orders a "large". That is because
you can drink the same amount of soda, through free refills, for the
price of a small as you can for a large. I used to wonder about this, I
have now come to the conclusion that a "large" soda is only sold as a
"to go" order, or because the consumer has gotten so lazy, and so rich,
as to not want to be bothered making trips back to the soda fountain.
Consequently, it appears to me that ordering a small drink and refilling
it ten times is an acceptable practice and one has not violated any
ethical standards in consuming the beverage in this way. Some
convenience stores will sell you mugs to where you can come fill up for
free of all the drinks you want, apparently forever. I don't think that
this could work at fast food chains. But perhaps I am wrong, think
about this, is it ethical to go pour yourself a drink "to go" as you
leave the restaurant after you have already consumed a number of refills
drinks ?

I used to think that the answer to this was no. I now find that not only
was I wrong about this, but that some places encourage you to fill up
the "to go" cup as you leave. Can you come back later for a refill ?
That's doubtful, Apparently, some do believe that once you have
purchased the drink, you drink for free as long as the original cup
holds up. I saw a sign at the Federal Courthouse in Wichita. Kansas
which said that refills were only good through the date of purchase

The reason that these are tough questions is because the premise of the
issue is that if you order a Coke at a fast food place, you can sit
there for eight hours drinking your way right into a diabetes stupor if
that's how you want to spend your time. I really think that is the
agreement you make at Wendy's when you buy a Coke. Well then, since you
are entitled to all the Coke you want anyway, how does it hurt anyone,
or seem unethical, to share your unlimited drink with someone at your
table ?No one would object if you shared with your three year old, why
is it different that if you share with a 30 year old friend ? If you
share, does it have to be from the same cup, or can your friend use the
small free water cup they gave her when she ordered. Must you be the one
to do the refill, or can your dead beat friend do it ?

One way to gauge how society is expected or is no expected to act in
these Coke contracts is to look at the enforcement mechanism of the
vendor. They are just about non-existent. The drink bar is often even
out of eyesight of the eighteen year old kid who took your order. It is
my belief that the profits made on these drinks is such that it is too
expensive to waste labor policing the outcome of the Coke purchase
transaction. In other words, for the most part, we are working under a
true honor system. I suppose that would be fine if there were any honor
among soft drink junkees.I doubt that there is much. Do you think
today's ten year old tosses sleeplessly at night thinking about filling
up her water cup with Mountain Dew ? I doubt it, and yet there you have
it, an out and out breaking of the ten commandments, not matter how thin
you slice it (how's that for mixing metaphors ?).

Is this really what we want to tell our kids about capitalism ? That in
certain cases, vendors under our system wink at these thefts, perhaps
to the point of encouraging them. This cannot go on, if only because it
is spawning a race of 300 pound fourth graders.

There are three ways we can approach this problem. The first is to work
through the issues of ethics with our children to make sure they
understand the concept of value in exchange for money. OK, OK, stop
laughing. There are two ways we can approach the problem.

First, groups of concerned citizens can give up parts of their day each
day to sit around fast food places and police soft drink activity. When
confronted with an ethical breach, the concerned citizen can go over to
the patron (thief) and explain to he/she ,as well as the entire dining
area, why patron has broken the commandment, not to mention the law.

Second, since the first method would result in violence, is what I call
the bundling theory (actually economists call it that, but I am stealing
it for this blog, see the irony ?). I would propose that everyone who
enters a fast food chain pay $1.00 as an entrance fee, sort of like a
two drink minimum at a night club. After the payment of the fee you can
do anything that I have expressed concerns about in this blog, as I am
sure that $1.00 per person will keep the establishment profiting
greatly, maybe even greater than now. The downside of this is that it
hits hardest on those least able to pay for themselves, i.e. the
children. Good. They need to find other ways to spend their disposable
income. If it was up to me I'd have a value added tax of fifty cents on
every soft drink sold in this country and probably ban soft drink ads
from the public airwaves. All of the money collected by the government
from these would be earmarked for children's fitness programs, if anyone
even remembers what those are.

The alternative, of course is the status quo,eventually all societies
seem to emulate ours and the problems that we have they seem to happily
embrace. Can you imagine a world of 1.5 billion Chinese consuming cokes
at our per capita rate. That would at least help the balance of trade
problem in much the same way sales of armaments do. There is always
light at the end of a tunnel.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Two old friends came in to see me this weekend. Craig Meredith and Bobby
Rayburn were part of a group I ran around with in high school which
included Jeff Franks, Dan Harrison and George Pfeiffer as , well as our
girl friends. Other folks were in the mix from time to time, but this
was the core group.

I had met Meredith in the eighth grade through my friend Herb
Farnsworth whom I guess I have told you before, now receives his mail at
a Texas penitentiary. Bobby I have known or known of most of my life,
as he grew up in the neighborhood. I know that I have written about Bob
at least once.

At any rate, the three of us were thrown together in an English class
our Junior year, Bob was also in my homeroom. In English, Bob sat right
next to me and Craig right behind me, there we would plot out activities
for the weekend which on more than one occasion involved the ingestion
of an illegal, but we felt harmless, drug.
The fact that marijuana was a felony at that time and there were people
serving thirty years in the slammer for possession of it, so we probably
should have been a bit more careful, but all's well that ends well.

At any rate, this story focuses on Bob, then aka Bobby, now Robert. Of
all my friends, Bob was the most energetic. He could not sit still and
always seemed to be somehow locomoting, even while sitting in a chair.
He was also one of those guys who, because he moved and thought so fast,
often did bother to think twice before doing something or saying
something. He was not cautious about anything. He has bought a
Volkswagen Beetle for $100 from someone and he drove it mostly in fourth
gear and without the use of brakes. It had brakes, I think, but as far
as Bob was concerned they were in the car just for decorative purposes.
Bob preferred dodging things like people, dogs and stop signs, rather
than to slow down , or, God forbid, stop down for them. That Volkswagen
could take any punishment and was used basically as a four wheel drive vehicle
with Bob taking it off road and, on one terrifying occasion for me, up a
hill which had no road. I will say that Bob was not so reckless as he
was fearless.

Now this English class we all took together was a hoot. The teacher was
a man named Sugg, and he was a very flamboyant character. He had a real
liking for Bob (most teachers did because they thought that he was a
little "scamp" and not capable of doing anything too bad. Depending upon
your definition of "bad" these teachers were all incorrect, but Bob, no
matter what he did, always landed on his feet.

This story takes place in January of 1970. We had all just returned from
a Christmas vacation and were starting the new semester. These were the
days before computers, or at least before the day that any computer
made was not stored in a building the size of a 7/11. In those days, at
the beginning of every semester, the teacher would hand out preprinted
index cards for all students to fill in with their name and address,
etc.. These cards were then alphabetized so that the teacher could
determine tardies and absences with them.

My class that January had a lot of new students. Our High School that
year was very civilized and had allowed us to change teachers a midterm
for any reason. In history class, I gave up a football coach with a flat
top, for a blonde former cheerleader from the University of Texas who
actually knew a little bit about the subject. But I digress.

As I stated before, Bob sat right next to me in Suggs room and I noticed
when I handed him the index cards that he took two.
It was actually fairly common practice in those days to fill out false
names on these cards in order to get a good laugh at the teacher, sort
of let him/her be put on notice that we would not be intimidated. Today
when they want the teacher to get that same message, they often assault
the teacher, but these were simpler times.

Our buddy Jeff Franks had told me over the holidays that someone in one
of his classes had turned in the name
"Sid Chauncey" and that that name had been called that name everyday for
three or four weeks before the joke became tiresome and someone told the
teacher that Sid had transferred to another class. I had related this to
Bob whom I guess decided to go a step further (or a bridge too far,
depending on your tolerance level for such pranks ).

The classic fake name, although one that I had never seen actually
attempted was Richard "Dick"
Hertz. You can probably see the humor in this, at least if you are
still on a seventh grade level sense of humor, which most of our class,
including me, was.

Now there are three things that came happen when you attempt this
particular trick. The first risk is that the teacher will recognize the
trick before calling the name. The second risk is that the teacher will
call out "Richard Hertz" which is not nearly as funny as Dick Hertz. The
their possibility which makes the joke work to perfection, the teacher
must go through a three line cycle calling out just like this, and in
this order: 1. "Dick Hertz" (pause) "Dick" (pause), and finally, "who's
Dick Hertz ?" Laughter then ensues and the teacher turns red. Bob's
effort succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. There was Sugg, going
through the correct order of call outs needed for the joke, ending with
the dramatic,
Who's Dick Hertz ? Ah, immortality for Rayburn, although his immediate
future did not quite so promising exactly At least he did not attempt
the last stage by answering the question, "Mine does Mr. Sugg."

After class, while Bob hid somewhere in the bowels of Bellaire High
School I approached Sugg to help him search through the cared and find
the culprit. By the way, this is the one mistake Bob made, if you can
get someone, not in the class to fill out an index card, you are bullet
proof. Bob had not done that, leading me to believe that it was a spur
of the moment idea. As I mentioned before, Bob did not often think twice
about such things, none of the great ones do..

As Sugg went through the cards I pointed out someone whose name I don't
recall, the was a manager (towel boy) for the baseball team Thus guy
was always trying to get us to sign petitions to support the team. I
figured, why not ? No one would blame me if I got this guy in trouble..
But Sugg then ran across Rayburn's card and compared them side by side.
"Well, you know it's not Rayburn" I said optimistically. Sugg gave me a
cold stare did not say a word, and went to lunch. I think he felt a
little betrayed because Bob was just about his favorite student. He
called him, for reasons I never understood, but was always concerned
about, "Bobble".

As the day wore on, "Bobble" made himself very scarce. Somehow, between
the end of English, and the beginning of that class the next day, The
evidence disappeared. That card being the only thing which could tie Bob
to the crime, he got off Scot free, as he invariably did, and the world
turned as it always had.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Perfection

Are you going on to perfection ? Jonathan Wesley

Perfectio vera in coelestibus St. Jerome


I had never heard of Armando Galarraga prior to last night.I was surfing
around the cable when I noticed a note crawling across the bottom of a
screen on one of the sports networks which reported that said Galarraga
had been "perfect through six" in a game he was pitching in Detroit
against the Cleveland Indians. What this meant was that he had retired
the first 18 men in order in the baseball game and if he could get the
next nine men out he would have pitched a "perfect" game. It would have
been the 2oth such game in major league history, a history which goes
back about 135 years. It is quite a rare event, although, oddly, two of
the 19 pitched in the last 135 years had taken place within the last
three weeks. Only once before, 1880, had two such games been pitched in
one season and never before had three been pitched in one year.

In this era of instant communication, the sports network ESPN switched
from their regular programming over to Detroit after the 7th inning was
completed with the perfect game still intact, so that fans could see
history made. I was gratified that the switch was made and, along with a
couple of million of my close friends settled in to see what would
happen.

Perfection. It is impossible to say that something is perfect. Let me
retract that last sentence. It is impossible to say with absolute
certainty that something is perfect unless we have a previously agreed
upon definition by which to judge the effort. There is no reason why we
should, as a society, have settled upon a perfect game in baseball being
the retirement of 27 batters in a row. We could have said that no one
pitched a perfect game unless they struck out all 27 batters. We could
go further than that and decreed that a game was only perfect if every
batter struck out on three pitches , or, if every batter struck out on
three pitches AND if none of the three strikes per batter was on a foul
ball.

I was holding the channel changer in my hand as the ninth inning started
for Mr. Galarraga. The first batter, the immortal Mark Grudzielanek
swung and hit a deep fly in the gap between left and centerfield. The
ball was hit so hard and placed so perfectly that I actually had my
thumb on the power button of the remote so that I could turn the game
off when the ball hopped off of the wall for a double. A funny thing
happened though. The Detroit Centerfielder, a fellow named Austin
Jackson running full stride caught the ball over his shoulder, his face
to the wall. A catch that more than one commentator has likened to
Willie Mays famous 1954 World Series catch. It was not simply a great
baseball play, it was a remarkable example of human athleticism. I was
stunned. I moved my thumb off of the power button and threw down the
control. This was going to be a perfect game, I was sure.

The next batter grounded out on a routine play, leaving only one batter
to be disposed of. That hitter was Jason Donald. I did not know much
about Jason, but I knew that he was batting in the number nine spot in
the Indian lineup, so by definition, I knew that he was the Indians
weakest hitter participating in that game. Young Donald proceeded to hit
a ball in the no man's land between First and second base. Miguel
Cabrrera, the Tiger first baseman ran toward it and it was obvious would
have to throw to the pitcher Galarraga coming over to cover first base.
In baseball, this is known as a 3-1 play and it is practiced constantly.
Woe to the pitcher who does not get over in time to cover. I frankly
thought that Cabrerra was too far over to get the runner, and I also had
my doubts that Galarraga would beat Donald to the bag. No one wants to
be the last out in a perfect game and see themselves on videotape
forever after failing to do their job ,so Donald was running like the
wind .

Cabrerra gloved the ball (ironically, the second baseman was directly
behind him, if Cabrerra had covered first himself the play would not
have been all that close, but Cabrerra did exactly what he was supposed
to be doing) and threw to the pitcher who was almost to the bag. I
leaned toward the screen and saw, in this order, the ball hit the
pitcher's glove, the pitcher's foot scrape over the top of first base
followed by the runners foot hitting the bag. To my shock, the umpire,
James Joyce (oh, ok, he goes by Jim, but for literary reasons I'm going
to call him by his given name)called the runner safe. Ah ha, I thought,
when the pitcher swept his foot across the bag, he must not made
contact. Oh well, at least it's the pitcher's own fault. Several replays
later it was clear that the bag had been touched by the pitcher. After
the game, James Joyce, probably drinking Jameson's deep into the night,
stated that he thought that the runner had "beaten the throw". This was
simply a blown call, a mistake, the reason why we put erasers on
pencils, the reason why we say (and you knew this was coming) "nobody is
perfect" .

Back to perfection. Under the definition I gave you for a perfect game,
Galarraga was perfect. 27 men came up, 27 men made outs. My definition
was flawed. A man is not out, no matter what, unless an umpire says that
he is out Galarraga had achieved perfection, he had just not been given
credit for it, and never will be in the record books. Forever after the
cold box score will say that Armando Galarraga pitched a magnificent one
hitter on the night of June 2, 2010 in the city of Detroit, Michigan.
Millions who saw it both live and on television will know that he was
wronged and, in a lesser way, the millions watching were themselves
wronged, cheated out of seeing something that happens so infrequently.

Many a fielder's error has destroyed a perfect game. Last night an
umpire's error did so. Umpires, like all of us make mistakes. At least I
think we all do. Ironically, the original James Joyce's did not fully
agree with me. Joyce said that " A man of genius makes no mistakes, his
errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." The umpire
James Joyce was more forthright about mistakes. "It was the biggest call
of my career and I kicked the shit out of it" he said last night. Indeed
he did, but you have to admire someone who would be so honest and you
have to hope that some of the great sympathy we feel for Galarraga, we
also feel for the umpire Joyce because really, it is a equal tragedy
for both men. Both men were doing the best they could, both were trying
to make their way on to perfection. I think that perhaps both of them
are closer to perfection now than they ever were.

We will hear in coming days, the appeal made again to allow use of
instant replay to be for these situations. I have always opposed that.
Baseball is a human game. Human beings are not about always "getting it
right". There is still room, even need, for catharsis in today's world
(Aristotle would have opposed instant replay).These small tragedies are
the things in life that remind us of what it means to be humans. If we
wanted to always "get it right" we could just program all of the players
and play the games on a computer like the kids do in their E.A. games.
Why bother with going through all the motions, to heck with hot dogs and
cracker jacks and seventh inning stretches ? To heck with stories about
real human beings like Galarraga and Joyce. To heck with cheering for
your flawed hero or booing an umpire. The spirit of Galarraga and Joyce
is what is needed in today's world. Much more than perfection.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Robin Roberts & the "Judge"

The old fastballer Robin Roberts died yesterday. Roberts won 286 games
in his career and ended up in the Hall of Fame. He played for only one
pennant winner, the Phillies of 1950, but that was a famous team ,known
forever as the "Whiz Kids". Roberts lost his only World Series game 2-1
to the New York Yankees that year on a Joe DiMaggio home run off of him
in the 10th inning, which, as far as losses go, is about as memorable as
you can get.

My brush with Roberts came many years later. In 1965 Roberts was
released by the Baltimore Orioles and picked up by Houston. I was in the
Panhandle that part of the summer and unaware that Houston had acquired
Roberts. In those days I used to listen to baseball games on my
grandfather's big radio before I went to bed. On this particular night,
Gene Elston announced that Robin Roberts would be pitching for Houston
against his old nemesis, manager Gene Mauch of the Phillies. I was
shocked and excited. Despite a Hall of Fame Career, Mauch had had
Roberts released after the 1960 season. That night, August 19, 1965, old
Robin Roberts shut out the Phils on 4 hits while my mother, brother and
I cheered on the Astros him on from the pull out bed in my Grandfather's
living room. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Of course, days
in Shamrock, Texas in the summers of the 1960s did not vary too much.

At any rate, Roberts became a personal hero of mine and was signed by
the Astros for the 1966 season. My memory was that Roberts pitched
opening day for Houston that year and, indeed I found out upon checking
today that my memory was right. Roberts lost that game, but gave up
only on earned run over 7 innings, a fine showing.

No summer lasts forever and the Astros cut Roberts later that year. He
played out the rest of the season, his last, with the Cubs. What stands
out in my mind about Roberts happened off the playing field. The Astros
in those days were owned by a fat shyster named Roy Hofheinz, or, the
"Judge" as he was called. Roy had been County Judge in Harris County. He
had also been Houston's mayor and had come close to getting impeached
from that job. Indeed he was impeached, at least in part for having four
City Councilmen arrested. He refused to recognize the impeachment and
eventually the City Council backed down. Roy then introduced a change in
the city charter to recall all of the councilmen that year. That passed,
but Roy has defeated himself by the Old Grey fox, Oscar Holcombe, a man
the Houston establishment always called on when they needed things to be
calmed down.

Now even a shyster (or a huckster as one biography called him) can have
good ideas, they often do. They usually just don't have the money to
make them happen. They usually get private investor money and/or public
money to fund their ideas. The Judge did both in bringing a baseball
team to Houston. The private money came courtesy of R.E. "Bob" Smith's
millions and the public money came from Harris County's bonding
authority which built the Judge's grand scheme, the first indoor
baseball park in history. The fabulous Astrodome. Xanadu on South Main.
The eighth wonder of the world. He then raised money in secret and set
up a showdown with Bob Smith which ended with Roy owning the team and
the lease to the Astrodome which was paid off at the rate of $1.00
American, each and every year. Time constraints and not wanting to try
your patience prevent me from detailing the rest of the Judge's career
which, like that of most Hucksters careers, ended in tears.

Back to Roberts. In 1966 the Judge was riding high and you can ride
pretty high when you pay $1 to rent a building which generates tens of
millions of dollars annually. People were pouring into the Astrodome
even when there was nothing to see. This particularly galled my father
who was the ultimate huckster hater. He used to wonder out loud how
anyone would have the nerve to charge 50 cents to look at an empty
stadium on nonevent days, which old Roy did.

One Friday evening the Astros held "Bat Night". They were to give a bat
to every kid who came to the game that night. Not some cheap souvenir
bat but a real Louisville Slugger. My brother and I went down and paid
our half dollar for the cheap outfield seats. We went to collect our
bats and were refused same. It was explained to us that you could only
get a bat if you were accompanied by an adult who had purchased a full
price ticket. Our protests were ignored. On the way home our complaints
became so loud that my father suggested that we call the Judge. My dad
was always saying stuff like that. He once advised me to call K.S. "Bud"
Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers when I was upset about something.
That call had not gotten anywhere, probably because the fact that I
represented "the people of Robindell" did not mean much to Bud's
secretary.

As you might expect, I did not get very far into my quest to talk to
Judge Hofheniz. Having failed in that I asked to be transferred to the
Astros clubhouse and was so transferred. Upon being connected I asked to
speak to Robin Roberts and they put him on the phone.

Wait a minute ? Really ? These were different times my friends. We used
to telephone the Shamrock Hilton to talk to visiting baseball players
all the time. Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers was a particularly nice guy.
Casey Weber of my neighborhood had the distinction of being hung up on
by Willie McCovey while trying to get through to Willie Mays. So I was
not totally shocked when Roberts picked up the phone.

I then proceeded to make my case and explained that Hofheinz had not
taken my call. Roberts put the phone down and went (he said) to get a
pen and paper, then he took down all the pertinent information and our
names and addresses and said that he would look into it.

This story would have a really happy ending if Roberts had sent us the
bats, which he never did. I never blamed Roberts, I always figured that
he'd tried ,but that the skinflint Hofheinz had put a stop to it." Send
them bats on your own nickel" I imagined Hofheinz thundering at Roberts.
After that though, I always had warm feelings for Roberts. Here's to his
memory.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who Saves Haiti ?

Riding to the Austin Book & Paper Show on Saturday with friends Bennett and Allensworth,the subject of Haiti naturally came up. "Why should WE save Haiti ? " inquired friend Bennett, a note of anger, or at least extreme righteous indignation in his voice. The Haiti catastrophe is the first I have seen, perhaps ever,where there seems to be a genuine backlash of a group of the citizenry against American help. A local braodcast called it "fatigue" and I think that there is a good deal to that.In a time of extreme economic uncertainty in the American economy, and a general backlash against liberalism, initiated and spread by the "Tea Party" populists ,which appears to have real traction, people are getting fed up.Right Wing Radio Host Rush Limbaugh announced, even before the aftershocks, that this whole tragedy would be seized upon by the Obama administrtion for political gain.This, contrasted to our last president, who used a devestating hurricane, which destroyed New Orleans, as a chance to show gross the incompetence of his political appoitments. Whatever happened to "Brownie " ?

But let us examine this fatigue which I believe has its roots in soemthing David Brooks disscussed in the New York Times on Sunday. As a backdrop, I am not fan of Brooks. I have not been since ther referred to himself and Tim Russert as among the "media elite" one day on "Meet The Press". Big time jornalists have coined this phrase to distance themselves from the common reporter who makes a living covering local politics for the Dallas Morning News.It just shows how desperatly we humans want to seperate ourselves from even the folks most like us.Brooks is somewhat of an ass. But he is intelligent, worth reading, and even worth seeking out for his opinion, no matter how different it may be from yours.

On Sunday, Brooks said what most of us know in our heart. The disater in Haiti is a problem of poverty, not natural disaster.Brooks points out that a larger earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 caused less than 70 deaths. The Haiti quake may hit 50,000.That's the difference that comes about when some people are rich, and can plan for the next earthquake, and some people are poor, and are trying to plan for the next meal, often without succcess.I don't know anything about bulding codes in Haiti and I really don't have to,they are either very lax or unenforced.Earthquake Protection is just not at the top of a country's list when they are as poor as the Haitians.

Brooks very accurately pointed out that nothing the West had been able to do over the years has had any affect on poverty in the so called "underdeveloped countries". The only real success stories of the post war era, with regard to massive aid, took place under the Marsahll Plan, where money was handed out to people who believed that economic growth was integral with their culture.The history of Haiti shows no such belief.Thus, Brooks argues (very carefully, for these are sensitive issues)that a change of culture is what is needed to create economic growth in Haiti and other poor parts of the earth.

Brooks portrays his bias when he says this.He takes for granted that capitalism is the only basis for a successful culture by defineing successful culture as one which has economic growth, so his circular reasoning can not fail.

I am inclined to agree with Brooks on one point. Successful capitalism has a cultural component which, up until now, does not seem to have been overcome anywhere, to any real extent, by the furnishing of aid to an economically poor country.You can make all kinds of argumentns against this, we have not had enough time, the West held back these nations through the use of slavery, colonialism, ecoonomic colonialism and, at least in our country, a policy of extermination. The biggest argument is that we have not spent enough money on the problem.All of these may be true,but neither Brooks nor I believe any of them to be determinative.

Brooks looks to changing culture as the only key to economic grwth and so, believes that this is what we must do.I agree with Brooks if we have all decided that the only culture worth striving for is market capitalism, because the only life worth pursuing is that of consumption. It is upon his premise which I disagree, and in which Brooks may certainly be wrong.Is it really possible to believe that the only economic systeem worth pursuing in this world happens to be our own ? I have a great preference for it, and would not want to change it,but that does not mean that it is the best for all people.It certainly does not mean that all people want it,or would be happiest under it.Very few of the Hawaiians who paddled out to meet Captain Cook did so out of a desire to change their life styles from fishing and simple planting and gathering to that of the sale of life insurance or trading of used cars.I am reasonably sure that the people of the Congo enjoyed their native lifestyle much better that the one Leopold thrust upon them as diamond mine slaves, even if it meant new industry for those tribes.

Many years ago, one of the greatest, posibly the greatest of American diplomatic thinkers, George Kennan, detailed his particular thoughts on diplomacy.One of his initial thoughts was for our country to more or less ignore the Southern Hemisphere, not in terms of friendship, but in terms of one that can have any true bearing on American self interets.Kennan's theory was that no great world power had ever arisen from the Southern Hemisphere.Kennan therefore reasoned that the way to bet was that one never would so arise.To date, Kennan has been 100% correct.No nation from the Southern Hemisphre, or even a nation in the tropics has ever been world economic or military power.There is a reason for that, and it is climitalogical.

The heat of the tropics and southern hemisphere have, throughout our recorded history,prevented the necessary native initiative required for widespread efforts at the accumulation of capital necessary to establish and maintain a market place economy.For years, the countries which had such economies took advantage of this by subjugating the labor of the southern countries and stripping it of its resources.One thing that they did not do was make it easier of the natives to live in areas of killing heat,tropical disease and often (but now always) infertile land.Let me also say that I do not believe that it is possible that the colonialists could have done so, had they been so inclined, which they were not.Late 19th century Europe could not have air conditioned Rhodesia.

The weather conditions of these countries made it not only impossible, but inadvisable for the native peoples to attempt large scale capitalism.The main reason was that most of them had a system that worked pretty well for them, barring the occasional earthquake.The Hawaiian people were so happy with their society that it became necessary for pineapple growers there to import Puerto Ricans to do the work ( these people were used to being exploited).Which one of us would have willingly given up the lifestyle of fishing, surfing and copulating in order to cut pineapple for a subsistent wage ? What's the point ?

I know what you are thinking. Can it really be all that easy ? Extreme hot weather is not compatible with the formation of a mass market economy ? How else do you explain it ? The people are equally intelligent.They just think differently because their climate is different. They had all figured out cultures that worked for them, until we came along. True, none of them had big screen televisions, but none of them had syphilis either.Their cultures were just different.Trying to impose our culture in places where it may not make much sense has been shown to be not only expensive,but often counterproductive. What plays in Peoria does not necessarily play in Pretoria.

Ultimately my view on all of this is somewhat symapathtic to Brooks thesis about culture. I simply don't agree with him that ours is better than others and we should really get tough on enforciing it, just because we enjoy it so much.It could be that for four hundred years we have been trying to put a round peg into our square hole because all of us thought that to be "there" you had to be "square".

Can a world survive with radically different cultures ? It did until 1492.Have all the changes we have wrought over the centuries made it impossible to order the earth with anything except market capitalism ? I don't know, no other system has worked on a grand scale.But that does not mean that one can't be found. What we need to do is to understand the culture of our poorer brothers and sisters and not try so hard to change it just so they can look like us.It will even be cheaper to go about it this way. The other thing we really need to do is export as many air conditioners as we can make so that thse folks can have the option of acting like us if they want. I bet that most of them would rather go out on their own.