The Great Gwynn

Tony GwynnRemembering Tony Gwynn

He certainly didn’t look like much of a ballplayer. He lacked the classic physique of a DiMaggio or an Aaron, but with a bat in his hands he became a baseball Toscanini, a maestro who could orchestrate his base hits with a flick of his wrists.

Tony Gwynn was arguably the best pure hitter of a baseball since Ted Williams, or maybe since Ty Cobb. The baseball world and the rest of the world mourns his untimely passing.

Statistics tell only so much of the Tony Gwynn story, but they tell a lot. Fifteen times an All-Star, a consensus first ballot Hall of Famer, 3,000 hits, a lifetime .338 hitter in an era when the long ball was too much celebrated. Think of this: 19 straight years batting at least .300. When Gwynn lead the National League in hitting in 1985 he went to the plate 675 times and struck out 23 times. Amazing.

Tony Gwynn was also something else just as important to baseball and the rest of humankind – he was a class act, a gentleman, loyal always to a usually less than stellar team, a great teammate and, like Ernie Banks and Cal Ripkin, an ambassador for the game and what it can be when it is played at its best.

“My mom and dad always used to tell me the best approach is just be humble,” Mr. Gwynn once told the Sporting News. “Be humble, go on about your business, do what you got to do and, when it’s all said and done you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I gave it a great run,’ or ‘Hey, I didn’t,’ or ‘Hey, I fell short,’ but as long as you prepare yourself every day to go out there and give it your absolute best effort to get it done, you can look at yourself in the mirror when it’s over.”

Good words for a baseball player and a person.

I always thought Gwynn would be an outstanding major league manager, but unfortunately he never got the chance. He was, as George Will wrote in his book Men at Work, not only a deeply devoted student of the game, but a scientist who had his own sophisticated theories about hitting a baseball, which, by the way, may still be the single most difficult thing to do with any consistency in sports. Gwynn was, like Williams, so committed to excellence as a hitter that he had his own hitting room constructed.

“It is a long, narrow batting room,” Will wrote, “big enough for a pitcher’s mound at regulation distance from a plate, and an ‘Iron Mike’ pitching machine with a capacity for about 250 baseballs. The room is lit at 300 candle feet, exactly as the Jack Murphy field is lit.”

Tony Gwynn has died much too young at 54 from cancer. He was a great player of the great game. When fans talk about baseball in 50 years or a 150 years Tony Gwynn will be in the conversation. He was that good and his passing is cause for both sorrow and joy. Sorrow that he’s gone too soon, joy that he brought such passion and perfection to the great game of baseball.

Nothing Easy About It

StrikeFourth in a series from Europe…

[Milan] – Over the weekend the newspapers in France were reporting on one of the worst national rail strikes in memory. The strike was precipitated, it was reported, by a more radical element in the rail union that distrusts the “reform agenda” of the Socialist government of the wimpy President Francois Hollande. You may recall that he’s the guy who reportedly snuck out of the Elysee Palace on a motor scooter a while back to have a tryst with his actress girl friend. Meanwhile the very beautiful and talented “first lady of France,” to whom Hollande was not married, ended up in hospital – I like how the French say “in hospital” – as a result of the president’s boorish behavior, which of course was spread all over the papers.

But enough, I’m letting French politics and sex get me away from the rail strike.

To put all this an American context, the dispute in France between the radical element in the rail union and the left-wing government would be a little like the ultra-right wing Tea Party in the United States deciding that the very conservative House majority leader was so much of a political squish that he needed to be sacked in a primary election. Radicals around the world simply don’t put up with their own who are just not radical enough.

Give them this much – the striking French rail workers picked a dandy time to strike. Not only is the tourist season gaining full strength, but this is the period in France when many students need to travel for final exams. The strike was, how you say, timed for maximum impact.

In any event, the French rail strike reminds me of two things one should never underestimate: the unpredictable nature of travel, perhaps particularly in France, and the absurd nature of most discount airline travel, as opposed to rail travel, these days. In fact, I have an alternative explanation for the chaos that spread rapidly across France as a result of the rail strike, but more on that in a moment.

I have been climbing on and off of airplanes on a regular basis now for more than 30 years. I belong to a half-dozen frequent flyer clubs and pride myself on knowing my way around airports from Montevideo to Heathrow, from Portland to Milan. I long ago gave up the anger that almost everyone feels when a flight is cancelled or a connection is missed because fog has grounded everything in the Pacific Northwest. I never worry about lost luggage because I never check a bag, even on an international flight. I’m of the school that says travel disruption is as common as political dysfunction and any one of us is just about powerless to affect better outcomes when the travel gods decide this is your day.

So, my mantra – in travel and politics – is to try and remain relentlessly optimistic. What else can you do? Turn off the outrage, have a beer and chill.

I did have to invoke the relentless optimism mantra early Sunday when the big train schedule in Milan’s Garibaldi rail station flashed “cancelled” next to the TGV to Paris. The French rail strike had struck the unsuspecting American.

By my best count I spent most of the rest of Sunday standing in 12 different lines often to be told when I reached the head of the line that I was in the wrong line and needed to go stand for a long time in the right line. Five lines later, and with the rail option from Milan to Paris no longer even as appealing as yesterday’s cold pasta, I discovered easyJet.

Can’t take the train to Paris then why not fly? The British “discount” airline was offering flights from Milan to Paris, so what the heck – book it. While waiting for a train – the Italian trains were running – from downtown Milan to the distant Malpensa airport, I went online and found a flight, booked it, paid for it and started standing in line. Many airline analysts have compared easyJet – and, yes, that is how they spell it – to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. Low cost, no frills, we’ll get you there with little fuss and bother…except easyJet is Southwest with none of the charm or service.

I’ve been a fan of Southwest for a long time. Great customer service, good value, an airline with a sense of purpose and sense of humor. First thing to know about easyJet is you can’t bring normal sized carry-on luggage onto one of the company’s large Airbus aircraft. My no carry-on policy cost me 70 Euros, even though there was ample overhead bin space for those of us who “never” check. I had to stand in three lines to figure out that checking my normal carry-on bag would cost me the equivalent of a good bottle of Champagne. Second thing to know is the Brit discounter wants you to interact with them almost exclusively on the Internet. There is no way in the airport to print a boarding pass. That’s what your easyJet app is for, unless you stupidly neglect to check your normal carry on bags by using the easyJet app and find that when you get to the airport you need to, well, check your bag. That requires standing in a line and getting a form that says you need to check your bag and then going to another line and paying a fellow who is all too happy to take your 70 Euros for a bag that always fits in the overhead bin – except on easyJet.

Once on board my profitably packed easyJet flight to Paris I discovered that I was really inside a flying convenience store. Everything you can imagine was for sale. No free peanuts and a soft drink as on Southwest. On easyJet everything comes with a transaction of a few Euros. You can chose from the largest liquor selection this side of a Paris Hilton party, for a price. Want a sandwich? We have choices. How about some tea or coffee? Hand over the credit card. Some perfume perhaps for the little woman at home? Gotcha covered and we do take cash.

The easyJet business model is clearly to make you pay through the nose for taking two changes of underwear on your discount flight and, oh by the way, if you’re thirsty that will cost you, too.

I will say this for easyJet, whose CEO says in the most recent in-flight magazine that her focus is “on making travel easier for everyone,” that the airline did get me Paris and on time and, not surprisingly, they are making money for shareholders while doing so. Standing in a dozen lines has nothing to do with making travel easier for anyone, but what the heck I got to Paris and today even thwarted the radical French rail unions by actually traveling by train during the strike! Take that you radicals.

Now, back to my alternative theory about why the rail workers went on strike just when they did. As you know if you read an earlier post in this series, rail travel in Europe – notwithstanding the French troubles of the moment – is, in my view, a dream. Fast, clean, convenient, comfortable and affordable. Millions of French citizens and a few of us Americans were reminded this week, thanks to striking French railroad workers. that a train beats an airplane nearly every time. And, yes, carrying my bag on the train today didn’t cost a thing.

Thank you easyJet for saving one leg of a wonderful trip. I hope to never darken your baggage line again.

 

Perfecto

Osteria

Third in a series from Europe…

[Siena] – I have found my perfect restaurant.

I have been fortunate to visit Siena – I think perhaps Italy’s most manageable and possibly most charming city – on three different occasions. The first time, 15 years ago, we just stumbled on Osteria Le Logge by accident. The second time we searched out the intimate little restaurant on a tiny, pedestrian-only street just off the magnificent Piazza del Campo. This week I felt like a regular.

The genial fellow in charge worked hard to accommodate a party of six without a reservation, while Siena crawled with visitors. A big party of American bicyclists seemed more intent on joking with each other than on soaking up the atmosphere. Still the pasta must have loaded them up for the next hill climb. As for me, I wanted to enjoy my return trip to the perfect restaurant.

As the photo accurately indicates, the place is marinating in old style, understated class. Lots of wood, old wine bottles, white table clothes and a sense that Francis Ford Coppola might walk in and take the table in the corner. You can wear your biking shorts here, but linen trousers and a pair of Italian loafers would be more in keeping with the style. Four huge floor to ceiling doors open up the small dining room to the street and a half dozen tables, under the umbrellas that are mandatory during a warm June day in Siena, spill out onto the cobbled stones. Even if the food wasn’t superb, which it is, the setting would help stoke any appetite.

Too often Americans treat lunch as an after thought. Grab a quick sandwich at your desk. Go for a noon time run and skip lunch altogether. Worst of all too many lunch from a too processed, too fat-laden fast food joint where they pick up the chicken-Mcsomething at the drive through window. Little wonder why too many Americans are seriously overweight and tragically lacking in appreciation for the fine art of really enjoying a meal with other people who make a choice to take time and smell the vino blanco and the fresh bread.

Unfortunately, Italians apparently are catching up with us in the “blow off lunch and eat something out of a plastic container,” but thankfully there are still many places like Osteria De Logge where an Italian – and an American – can pause, relax, consider and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – a good meal in a handsome setting.

The menu is hand written in Italian, as it should be, and indicates that the kitchen is very much in tune with the ingredients of the season. The wine list is extensive and heavy on, of course, Chianti from up the road and Montalcino from a bit further south. The waitress is business-like, her English excellent and her understanding even better. She patiently explained what was what, something she must do a hundred times a day. I opted for the tagliatelle, but I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any item on the menu and been a very happy fellow.

If you agree with Stephen Colbert that “there is nothing American tourists like better than the things they can get at home” Osteria Le Logge is not your place. Oh, you can find superb restaurants anywhere in the world – particularly in the United States – but Europeans, and perhaps particularly the Italians, have a certain respect for a meal as both a time of sustenance, but also a time for relaxation, companionship and conversation.

In the wonderful 1996 film Big Night two Italian brothers are trying to make a go of their struggling restaurant. That settle on an audacious public relations plan to create a great meal to serve when the bandleader Louis Prima is scheduled to visit the restaurant. The resulting publicity will save the day, or perhaps not.

The older brother is a talented chef who insists on creating his food by the book. He refuses to serve two pasta dishes to the same customer. The younger brother is the practical businessman who seeks to always please the customer and, if necessary, tradition be damned. At one point the businessman brother suggests they drop the risotto since it is expensive and time consuming to create in the style that the chef insists upon. Fine, the chef brother says, we’ll substitute hot dogs that will please the customers.

At another point, Primo, the exacting chef, presents one of his dishes to a girl that he has a crush on and offers a truism: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Exactly.

As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Big Night,”It is about food not as a subject but as a language–the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.” Exactly.

Put on some Louie Prima, open another bottle, smile and talk and laugh. Eat in the good life that comes when good food serves as the catalyst for good living. Find your own perfect restaurant – I found mine in Siena – and savor the memory of a visit. Then start planning to return.

Buon appetito!

 

La Dolce Vita by Rail…

NTVSecond in a series from Europe…

[Near Radda in Chianti] – Probably the best way to really enjoy and appreciate the Tuscan countryside is on foot, trekking from one charming hill town to the next. Or you might ride a bicycle, but considering the very narrow, twisting roads here that could be hair raising. Most folks opt for a car or, for the very brave, a motorcycle. Any mode of transportation could work in the Italian countryside, but you first must get here and there is a good chance – unlike the United States – that you will arrive by rail.

Italy is many things: an agricultural and wine mecca and a center of history, culture, fashion and design. Italy is also a country hampered by a truly inefficient political system that produces a new prime minister about as often as Chianti produces a stellar vintage. Next to the Italian political process our own dysfunctional Congress looks like a well-oil machine. Most Americans would say we could teach the Italians something about the importance of hard work. The Italians might say Americans could learn something from them about la dolce vita – the sweet life.

Italians can also teach us something about trains.

In 2012 a new, private high speed rail operator began service to many of Italy’s largest cities. The sleek Chianti red trains operate on an open access system that provides the private rail company – NTV or Italo – with access to state-owned high speed corridors. I rode the very comfortable train this weekend from Rome’s sleek and stylish new Tiburtina train station to downtown Florence. Once we cleared the Rome suburbs we flew along at 250 km per hour (about a 155 miles per hour) on a trip that lasted hardly long enough – an hour and 20 minutes. You could drive from Rome to Florence if you were crazy enough and maybe – depending on traffic – make it in three or so hours. Flying seems unthinkable. Considering the speed, comfort, convenience and cost the train is really the only way to go.

While the rest of the world plunges ahead to make new investment in a new generation of high speed rail, back in the USA we can’t find a way to link even the most obvious destinations – San Francisco and Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte. The mere mention of investment in high speed rail is likely to set off a Tea Party-like rant against wasteful government spending. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida put the hex on projects in those states and California – if ever there were a state that needed high speed rail it is California – continues to battle over costs and routes and the Los Angeles Times reports this week that more lawsuits around the initial $9 billion project are all but certain.

Meanwhile, China – no kidding – has floated the idea of constructing a high speed line from China to the United States that would include a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. At first blush that seems like an outrageous idea, but the Chinese have invested billions and billions in their own fast train system and they have begun to corner the market, like many other markets, on high speed design, engineering and finance. New analysis in Australia, a country without high speed rail, says a system there would not only be heavily utilized, but would be good for the environment.

Britain, Japan, Spain and France are all moving steadily ahead to improve their rail systems – high speed and more conventional rail – while the United States, virtually alone in the world in this regard, continues to spend its often inadequate infrastructure dollars on more pavement. Opponents of rail often cite the “vast public subsidies” needed to build and maintain a modern rail system as their chief argument against making passenger rail transportation a national priority. It’s a silly argument since governments at every level spend lavishly on roads, bridges, freeways and airports. The U.S. air transportation system simply wouldn’t exist without the truly vast public investment made, usually with little controversy, in airports in any city of any size in the country.

I was in Winslow, Arizona a while back, a place that once was a stop on the route of the Super Chief, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s deluxe train that, as recently as the 1960′s, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The railroad boasted that the Chief was a “deluxe hotel on wheels.” Now days one Amtrak train a day stops ever so briefly in Winslow. On a starry night I sat outside the grand old La Posada railroad hotel in Winslow watching the BNSF freight trains roll past and on into the night. An Australian visitor took a seat nearby and we shortly struck up a conversation about trains. With true wonder he finally posed the question that must seem incomprehensible to a visitor to the United States. “Why,” he asked, “did you Americans do away with virtually all of your passenger trains?”

Slightly embarrassed I could only shake my head. Why indeed.

 

 

Roman Holiday

Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerThis is the first of a series…

In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.

And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.

On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.

The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.

On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.

The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.

The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.

I still wonder how they got that on film.

Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960′s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion - yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  - much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.