So Long Bobby

bobby_cox_cigarAn All-Time Great

The rap against Bobby Cox, the 25 year manager of the Atlanta Braves, has always been that he won only one World Series. Never mind the more than 2,500 wins, all the Division and National League titles, Cox has not been a big winner on the biggest stage in baseball – the World Serious.


Cox, who says he’ll hang it up at age 70 when this season ends, deserves to take a victory lap as one of the greatest managers the game has ever produced. The record speaks for itself: a .557 winning percentage over a lifetime in the dugout, five pennants, four times manager of the year (and in both leagues) and a classic, classic baseball guy. That winning percentage put Cox just behind the legendary John McGraw and Joe McCarthy at number three all-time in most games over .500. No one has ever had more first place finishes – 15. Talk about consistency and longevity. In the years Cox has managed in Atlanta, the Cubs and Red have each had 11 different managers. The Marlins and Astros ten each.

Here’s the great Braves lefthander Tom Glavine on Cox: “It’s very simple what he expects out of you. Show up on time, play the game right, wear you’re uniform the right way. And if you can’t do that then you’re going to have problems with anybody…Because things were so simple and so easy to follow, it lent itself to there not being a lot of drama.”

ESPN’s Jason Stark has written a great piece on Cox and this sentence stands out: “Cox…has set a record that might never be broken: We’ve never heard a single player rip him. Not one. Not ever.”

If a player has criticized Cox, says Brave president John Schuerholz, “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard it.”

That is the essence of why Cox has been such a star in the dugout – he’s a leader. You don’t see a Braves player failing to run out a pop fly or showing up wearing their uniform like some bum pulling down $5 million a year. Cox set standards, treated his guys like adults and expected them to behave accordingly. It also doesn’t hurt to have your manager enjoy an occasional Cohiba. Cox is a baseball throwback, but there is nothing out of style or old fashioned about leadership or style.

Get the plaque ready for Cooperstown. This guy is headed there and really deserves it.

The Red Corner

LeninCommunists in Montana? You Must Be Joking…

See if you can transport yourself to 1920 in extreme northeastern Montana. It must have been a heck of a place; booming settlement, bootlegging, truly radical politics and real support for a guy named Lenin.

Sheridan County, Montana borders on North Dakota to the east and the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to the north. It is about as far removed from Soviet Russia as you can imagine, yet Sheridan County from about 1920 to 1930 was at the very center of the tiny American Communist movement. Led mostly by radical farmers and a bombastic newspaper editor, Sheridan County voters sent an openly Communist state senator and a state representative to the state legislature in Helena. The sheriff and most other county elected officials operated, as they say, under the Red Flag.

The local newspaper – The Producers News – published in the county seat of Plentywood, eventually became an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA. The editor, Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, was a brilliant propagandist who, after serving in the Montana State Senate also ran for the U.S. Senate and actively participated in Communist Party activities nationally. Taylor was on friendly terms with William Z. Foster, the perennial Communist Party candidate for president, and brought Foster to Sheridan County in 1932.

This fascinating, and mostly forgotten story, has been well chronicled in a fine new book by Verlaine Stoner McDonald. The book – The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana – was published earlier this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. Professor McDonald grew up in Sheridan County and her great-great uncle, Clair Stoner, was elected to the state legislature in the 1920’s. He was a Communist.

One of the most interesting aspects of McDonald’s book is that for decades, as she writes, “during the McCarthy years in the 1950’s and the Cold War, the people of northeastern Montana tried to forget their brush with notoriety.”

McDonald, who graduated from Plentywood High School, “without having heard of the Sheridan County Communists” and knowing that her relative had been a leader of the radicals.

In his review of The Red Corner, Montana historian Donald Spritzer notes that once the New Deal relief efforts of Franklin Roosevelt brought benefits to Sheridan County – the WPA built a courthouse in Plentywood, for example – the county’s Communists faded from significance and the locals seemed more than happy to have the history disappear, as well.

“Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era,” Spritzer said. “But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.”

Montana native Ivan Doig, whose splendid book Bucking the Sun, is set in northeastern Montana in the 1930’s gets the last word on the radicals of Sheridan County.

“When there was enough rain,” Doig wrote in his story about the Montanans who built Fort Peck Dam, “the soil of the northeastern corner of Montana grew hard red wheat. When drought came, politics of that same colorization sprouted instead.”

Harry Truman said,“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” How true.

McDonald’s book tells a great story that has been long forgetten; a rich history of the rural American west and one area’s flirtation with – truth stranger than fiction -Communism.


Among the Best Ever

ichiroIchiro…a Hitting Machine

One of my great baseball memories was watching a batting practice session in Arizona several years ago. It was just one of those typically perfect March days when the boys of summer are getting ready in the sunshine of the desert. It was fun to watch the Mariners take their cuts, until the slender right fielder stepped into the batting cage. Then the hitting became a clinic.

He drove the first pitch on a line down the left field line, the second pitch in the gap in left center, the third batting practice fastball straight into center field and so on. The guy had such control of the bat and such perfect timing that he could literally drive the ball wherever he wanted – and he did. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a better display of raw, professional baseball hitting ever.

The fact that No. 51 established an all-time Major League record last week by getting his 200th hit for the tenth consecutive season has to put Ichiro Suzuki into the ranks of the all-time greatest hitters of a baseball. The great one is a hitting machine.

Ty Cobb needed 18 seasons to get 10 seasons of at least 200 hits and the all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, took 15 years. Ichiro did it in ten straight years with the Mariners. Remarkable.

Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone speculates that Ichi could get 3,500 total hits by the time he quits, still short of Rose’s record, but remarkable considering he came to the U.S. Major Leagues at age 27. As Stone notes, had he been playing since, say, age 22 – he played 9 seasons in Japan before coming to Seattle – he’d be knocking on Rose’s door right now. Ichiro has also, generally speaking, had more at bats per season that Rose and doesn’t walk as much.

The old baseball adage holds that the really great players can do it all – hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, play defense and throw the ball with speed and accuracy. I’ve seen Ichiro jack a few, but he’s clearly not – nor has he tried to be – a power hitter. Still he has 90 homers and has always been a threat to leave the park every time he goes to the plate.

I rank him as one of the true impact players of his age. Barry Bonds – illegal drugs aside – was always an impact player, so too Mays and Clemente. Those types of players can impact a game just by being in the line up. Ichiro is in that class.

He is also the quiet, professional that shuns the spotlight and plays the great game with respect for its traditions, both in the U.S. and in Japan.

One of the first times I saw him I thought you must be joking. This guy’s mechanics are all wrong. He can look perfectly awful swinging at a pitch and stepping in the bucket. He flings the bat at the ball. He falls away from the plate. He just gets 200 hits every year.

He may not always look great slapping a base hit to the opposite field, but Ichiro is among the greatest hitters ever.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden+in+Plain+SightWorld Class Basque Exhibit Opens Friday

Boise’s own Basque Museum and Cultural Center, a bit of a hidden gem in Idaho’s and the Northwest’s cultural life, opens a marvelous new exhibit on Friday at the Museum on Boise’s historic Basque Block downtown.

The exhibit – developed by the Museum – premiered earlier this year at Ellis Island in New York, home of the National Memorial to the American immigration experience. I had a chance to see the exhibit there and can attest to its quality. You’ll be fascinated by the breath and depth of Basque influence in the world from politics to sports, from art to business.

The exhibit opens after a dinner and program on the Basque Block Friday.

Check out the website of the Museum for more information. There is also a website devoted to the exhibit. Reporter Scott Ki of Boise State Public Radio also did a nice piece on the exhibit.

One thing the exhibit does particularly well – this is worth remembering as political campaigns slash and burn around the immigration issue – is to remind us that America is a nation of immigrants.

In his 1958 book – A Nation of Immigrants – John Kennedy said: “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”

The Basque experience helps us reflect on the wisdom of Kennedy’s words. Make time to go see the exhibit. You won’t be sorry.

Looking More, Believing Less

newspapersThe Survey Says…

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press is out with a new survey about where we’re going for news and why and at least one of the findings in a little surprising to me. Pew says Americans are spending more time following the news.

Meanwhile, the Gallup organization has its own research that shows that Americans are less confident than ever in what they are getting from newspapers and television. Fewer than 25% of those surveyed by Gallup say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers or TV. That number represents a 10% decline over the last five years or so.

Conclusion: we are more interested than ever in what is going on and we have less belief than ever that what we see and read is the straight scoop.

The Pew survey also seems to buttress a contention of mine that news organizations are more and more appealing on a purely ideological basis. This is the news of the future, but really is a return to the past when political ideology sharply defined newspapers and magazines.

A liberal – defined, for example, in the Pew survey as one who supports gay rights – tends, big surprise, to like the New York Times and National Public Radio. Supporters of the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party are big listeners to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Fox News. Libertarians like the Wall Street Journal. Pew also reports that more and more of us are using digital means to keep up on the world and younger Americans, those under 30, are fast forgetting what a newspaper is all about. More affluent and well-educated Americans, again big surprise, tend to shop around more using digital, print and broadcast sources for their information. Could be that they just have the time and ability to do so.

It may be a stretch to connect these two interesting surveys to some recent musings by former President Bill Clinton, but here goes. During a recent extended interview with the Times – former presidents do extended interviews, apparently – Clinton identified his favorite TV commercial of the last five years as the ESPN spot were the math nerds make fun of the jocks spewing sports stats in the high school cafeteria.

Clinton was making the point that the clever spot is a metaphor for American political life. Namely, if we cared as much about the “hard facts” that pertain to public policy as we do about football, it would be a better, at least in Clinton’s view, for Democrats.

Facts are good things, but Clinton, of all people, should know that politics is much more often – like football – about emotion, feeling and raw execution. I feel Clinton’s pain about the need for more focus on “hard facts” in our consumption of news, but, upon further reflection, the former president just might not be the best messenger for the “hard facts” approach to public life.

The reality of the moment is – and this is the truth – that we often place more emphasis in developing our positions on what Stephen Colbert has called “truthiness.” What we believe may not really be true, but it seems close enough, particularly when we factor in our emotions and ideology.

By the way, the Pew survey finds that among those 30 and younger, “about as many young people regularly watch the Daily Show (13%) and the Colbert Report (13%) as watch the national network evening news (14%) and the morning news shows (12%).”

Sounds about right. There is an element of “truthiness” in there somewhere. Just ask Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly.

A Class Act

torreNice Words for a Dodger?

I don’t like the Yankees or the Dodgers. Never have. But I gotta say a word or two about the class act that recently announced he was taking off the Dodger blue at the end of the season and – do you believe this – retiring.

Joe Torre is plain and simple a class act. I’ll never understand what happened in New York that caused bad blood to develop between Joe and the pinstriper’s management. What the guy didn’t win enough for you? Through thick and thin, Torre kept his temper, showed his class and keep the media spotlight from frying him and his players.

All Torre did was win in New York – every year in the playoffs, ten Eastern
Division titles, six American League pennants and four World Series rings. He obviously didn’t have the same talent or budget in LA, especially after the dysfunctional Dodger owners decided to split the sheets, or was it air the dirty laundry?

The guy was a player, too. A Gold Glove catcher, National League MVP and a batting title. He’s the only guy to have 2,000 wins as a manager and 2,000 hits as a player. He also didn’t take himself too seriously even when he looked like the world was resting on those broad, Italian shoulders.

Torre holds the National League record for grounding into double plays in a single game. He did it four times in a game in 1975. His comment: “I’d like to thank Félix Millán for making all of this possible.” Millán was hitting in front of Torre that day and singled all four times.

One of my partners tells a story about a friend of his who once saw Torre sharing a bottle of wine with some other guys in a Seattle restaurant after a game. The friend thinks he’ll big-time the Yankee manager and sends over another bottle of what Torre and his friends are drinking, then nearly passes out when he gets the bill. Torre obviously had class when it came to selecting a bottle of wine, too.

Torre will have a chance to manage again, I suspect. He certainly deserves another job, if he wants one. He’ll look better in anything but pinstripes and Dodger Blue. Or, if he wants, Torre can go to the broadcast booth or, I can dream, replace Bud Selig. Or, he can really retire, spend time with his family and not sleep 100-plus nights a year in a hotel room.

As the Giants, Padres and Rockies battle to the wire in the National League West, I regret that Torre’s team, as much as I dislike them, aren’t in the hunt. He deserves that.

Baseball has few enough really classy acts. Joe Torre is one of the best.