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That’s Baseball

griffeyGriffey Quits…Ump Blows It

Quite a day in baseball yesterday. Ken Griffey, Jr. made a good call and an umpire in Detroit didn’t.

The good call first.

Perhaps the hardest thing in baseball, politics, business, you name it, is knowing when to hang it up. Most of us stay too long, sitting on our past accomplishments, talking too much about the good ol’ days, hanging on when we should make way. Quitting is hard. Knowing when to quit is harder still.

Ken Griffey is – was – a pro. He must have known at age 40, when most of us think we’re hitting our prime, that he was finished. Sure, he could have held on until the end of the season. Mariner fans love the guy, and we have little enough to celebrate at the moment, but I think it was time Junior took the bow and made for the showers. He knew when to quit.

I want to remember Griffey in his prime, jumping up against that ugly outfield wall in the old Kingdome pulling in a fly ball or dropping the bat at home plate after one of the most perfect swings in baseball history sent one of his 630 home runs into a bullpen in some ballpark. Griffey had a Willie Mays quality to him – they both wore number 24 – that before all the injuries, made him a joy to watch, in part, because he seemed to be having so much fun playing a little kid’s game.

As the New York Times noted, Griffey was as good as any in his generation, a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, and no taint of scandal, no personal excess and limited ego. He was the real deal, a natural. I’ll miss The Kid, but to everything there is a season and it was time.

Griffey’s announcement in Seattle was overshadowed by umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call in Detroit that cost Armando Gallarraga a perfect game. To Joyce’s never ending credit he was in anguish after the game telling reporters that he missed the call “from here to the wall” and “kicked the s–t out of it.”

Predictably, everyone has an opinion about what to do ranging from more technology to aid the umps, a bad idea, to a suggestion from that loudmouth Keith Olbermann that the Commissioner ought to intervene. A really bad idea.

Come on. Baseball, its been correctly said, is a game of inches played on a huge expanse of grass and dirt. Few things in baseball are perfect, which is part of the reason it is such a perfect game. Baseball is a game of judgment and error. You’re a brilliant hitter if you fail only seven out of ten times. In what other game would a ball that hits the foul pole on its way out of the park be declared fair?

There is no crying in baseball and no do overs, either.

I love the Tigers and I hate it when one of the boys in blue impacts a game, but that is the game. We’ve already had two perfect games in this long season and its only the first week in June. Perhaps the baseball gods just deemed three in a season one too many.

And, by the way, how about Jim Joyce for Congress. At least the guy can fess up to a mistake.

Crying Time

Hopper“Now boys, don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry!”

When I heard that the great character actor Dennis Hopper had died – I think his character was to always play some version of himself – I immediately thought of his role in Hoosiers, the 1986 film about Indiana high school basketball.

Hopper, the town drunk, was Gene Hackman’s assistant coach for the fictional Hickory Huskies. The climax of the movie, of course, is the tiny town’s triumph in the state championship over the big school from South Bend.

Hoosiers is the best basketball movie ever and one of the best sports films ever made. I admit that I always tear up when Hackman leads his small town team into the cavernous Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis where they will soon play for the state championship. It’s one of the great scenes in sports filmdom when the coach has his players measure the foul line and the distance from the floor to the rim. He was making the point that the dimensions in the huge, big city arena were just the same as in the dinky little gym back home.

Hopper had a lot of famous roles, of course, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, among them, but Hoosiers was as good as anything he ever did.

Angleo Pizzo wrote and directed the movie and told Indianapolis Star columnist Kyle Neddenriep that Hopper’s role was central to the movie and the actor on his own came up with the line about not getting “caught watchin’ the paint dry.”

“(Hopper) had an interesting way of rehearsing and memorizing lines — he didn’t,” Pizzo said. “We’d written something else completely, which I don’t remember exactly. If you watch the first take, all of the players are laughing because they’d never heard that before in rehearsal. We liked it so much — even though we weren’t sure what it meant — that we left it in.”

It strikes me as a good line for any basketball player and for life. Hopper was saying, “don’t get caught standing around – move!”

Dennis Hopper died after a long struggle with prostate cancer – a good reminder to get that PSA checked – and he was buried today in Taos, New Mexico.

Hoosiers was on Turner Classic Movies last night. It is a classic.

Electing Judges

Sandra_Day_O_ConnorDoes Justice O’Connor Have a Better Way?

News this weekend that an anti-abortion, pro-gun, Christian group in California is targeting judges in the San Diego area comes hard on the heels of another tough contest – including independent expenditures – in Idaho for a seat on the Idaho Supreme Court.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been speaking out and writing about the inherent problems associated with electing judges; something that most states do.

O’Connor summarized the problem nicely in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “Each state has its own method of choosing judges, from lifetime appointments to partisan elections. But judges with a lifetime appointment are not accountable to voters. And elected judges are susceptible to influence by political or ideological constituencies.”

Speaking to a bar group in Chicago, O’Connor recalled a contentious 2004 race in Illinois that cost $9 million. “As you might have guessed,” she said, “the winner of that race got his biggest contributions from a company that had an appeal pending before the Illinois Supreme Court. You like that?”

O’Connor advocates a merit selection system and a retention election. “In a merit selection system, a nonpartisan nominating commission interviews and investigates applicants for judicial vacancies, and ultimately recommends a few candidates to the governor. The governor appoints one from the list. Regular ‘retention’ elections are held to allow voters to decide whether to keep the judge in office.”

As a state legislator in Arizona before going to the Supreme Court, in 1974 O’Connor helped create Arizona’s system of merit selection and retention. The respected Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law tracks judicial elections and reform efforts and the Center’s Adam Skaggs said recently that O’Connor has it exactly right – politics and judges don’t mix.

Strictly speaking, the Founders thought the same. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separate from the legislative and executive powers.”

The election of judges may soon get even more complicated thanks to the recent U.S. Supreme Court corporate contributions case Citizens United that was decided by a divided court on First Amendment grounds. Skaggs predicts, as did Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent in the Citizens case, that more money will soon flow into judicial elections making it even more difficult for voters – and those with business before the courts – to see how judges are any different than politicians.

As Justice Stevens noted in the Citizens case “concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch” and O’Connor predicts,“the problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections might get considerably worse and quite soon.”

A superb Frontline document a while back examined Justice for Sale, It was sobering and cautionary and for anyone who really cares about the independence of the courts viewing it will send a shiver down your spine. Justice O’Connor continues her trailblazing career and her thoughtful cautions are worth a careful listen.

70 Years Ago…

DunkirkTheir Finest Hour

Seven decades ago, western civilization teetered on the brink on a sandy spit of land in the French coast at a little town called Dunkirk.

Over the last few days of May and the first few days of June 1940, 340,000 British troops and thousands more French were evacuated from northern France in what was at the same time a remarkable save and a stunning defeat. Dunkirk, that is all that need be said, to conjure up the image of England literally standing alone against what appeared to be the total superiority of the Nazi war machine. The 70th anniversary of the Miracle of Dunkirk is being remembered in England this weekend.

One veteran who was taken off that bloody beach all those long years ago told the Guardian that the memory is “on my mind all day every day.”

It is hard to make great history – or great speeches – from abject defeat, but when England and the world needed it most, that most remarkable Englishman, Winston Churchill, rose to the occasion. His “finest hour” speech still stands as a superb historical document and as close as any politician can ever come to turning political rhetoric into lasting literature.

The last three paragraphs of the speech Churchill delivered in the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 begin:

“What (French) General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.”

Churchill did many remarkable things with his speech after the Dunkirk disaster, not least being that he leveled with his country about its almost unbelievably dire circumstances. We take it for granted today that Britain would survive, that the United States would enter the war, that Hitler would be defeated. It wasn’t so clear in that long ago spring.

Read Winston’s words and put yourself in that place 70 years ago:

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Churchill later said that the British people had displayed the heart of a lion in standing up to Hitler. He had the honor to supply, as he said, “the roar.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”

We celebrate Memorial Day weekend with cookouts, baseball games, a few hours in the garden perhaps, and, I hope, with a few moments of pause to remember. Western civilization did hang in the balance 70 years ago.

It is history worth knowing and appreciating. Happy Memorial Day.

Footnote: There is a remarkable new wartime biography of Churchill – Winston’s War – by the acclaimed British World War II historian Max Hastings. It’s a terrific book. Hastings shows Churchill to be all that he was – brilliant, petulant, difficult, charming, a cigar smoking, champagne swilling leader and orator of the first order.

Sorting Out the Idaho Primary – Part II

sarah palin vaughn wardThe Palin Effect and More

If there is a single journalist with a national audience who regularly keeps an eye on Idaho it would be Tim Egan, the former Spokane kid, who now writes a weekly, online column for the New York Times.

Here is the lead on Tim’s column today:

“In the midst of one of the most precipitous political crashes in the Mountain West, Sarah Palin made a mad dash into Boise on Friday, urging the election of a man who had plagiarized his campaign speech from Barack Obama, had been rebuked by the military for misusing the Marine uniform and had called the American territory of Puerto Rico a separate country.”

Read on for Egan’s take on the Palin brand and some insight into why her obvious popularity doesn’t seem to transfer to the folks she endorses, including Vaughn Ward.

Meanwhile, if its possible, the Idaho Legislature next year is shaping up to be even more conservative. One sure take away from Tuesday’s election in Idaho: the most conservative elements in the state GOP continue to be on the rise and they turned out this week.

The Associated Press’ John Miller notes in his summary story on the defeat of four GOP incumbent state senators: “Sens. Chuck Coiner of Twin Falls, Mike Jorgenson of Hayden Lake, Gary Schroeder of Moscow, and Lee Heinrich of Cascade lost to rivals who are either tea party adherents or courted voters espousing the movement’s limited-government, states-rights philosophy.”

Still, I’m reminded – from an historical perspective- that there is nothing new in the fact that given a choice, Idaho GOP primary voters often reward the most conservative candidates in a given race. That’s why Helen Chenoweth beat David Leroy in 1994 in a GOP First District primary and why Bill Sali won a six way race in the same district in 2006.

In the more distant past, then-House Speaker Allen Larsen won a six way primary for governor in 1978, in part, on the strength of his very conservative standing. In hotly contested GOP primaries, all things being equal, the most conservative candidate tends to win.

None of this history diminishes the obvious intensity of the “tea party” movement. Idahoans and people across the country are fuming about a lot of things and they are taking it out on incumbents or those seen as representing “the establishment.” As a result, one-time GOP moderates like John McCain in Arizona, fearing the anger, are running to the right, while the middle of American – and Idaho – politics becomes more and more a no candidate land.

November may tell us the power of anger as a political platform. Historically, optimism and practical solutions have proven to be a better path to power, but we’re in a new zone and Tuesday’s outcomes in Idaho will serve to reinforce the notion that being against something feels better to most candidates in this climate than being for something.

Sorting Out the Idaho Primary

labradorMoney, Endorsements Lose to Gaffes and Guts

Raul Labrador, the new GOP candidate for Congress in Idaho’s First District, is political proof of Woody Allen’s famous phrase – “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”

Back in the gloomy cold of winter, with the Idaho Republican establishment in line with the guy Labrador decked on Tuesday, you wouldn’t have found many political watchers in Idaho – this one included – who would have given the very conservative state legislator even a five percent chance to win the GOP primary. You gotta hand it to Labrador. He had the guts to show up and win he did. All politics require measures of luck and timing and courage and Labrador got just enough of each.

Labrador will now face first-term Democrat Walt Minnick in a race that could well turn on whether Republicans nationally have a genuine chance to recapture control of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall.

Minnick will hope to make the election about his effectiveness and his conservative Democratic credentials. In other words, localize the contest. Labrador will try, as he began to do on election night, to make the contest part of a national referendum on Nancy Pelosi. Minnick has a war chest, while Labrador must have awakened this morning looking for money.

The one-time anointed GOP candidate in the First District, Vaughn Ward – now dubbed the worst candidate ever – saw his front runner status dissolve over the last month in what will go down in Idaho political history as the most astounding series of, as Randy Stapilus says, “goofs and gaffes” that anyone can remember.

Ward’s demise drew significant national attention because he had been so completely embraced by the national and state GOP establishment and because Sarah Palin’s last minute appearance on his behalf seemed to do nothing to help his cause.

At the end of his line, Ward’s big name endorsers, including two former governors, were no were to be found. Sen. Mike Crapo admonished him in the campaign’s 11th hour for misusing a quote and a YouTube video of Ward stealing – of all things – Barack Obama’s words went absolutely viral. Shakespeare couldn’t have written this ending.

Now, the vetting of Labrador really begins. Ward, as the front runner and generally regarded as the toughest opponent for Minnick, collapsed under the scrutiny and because of his own verbal gaffes. Now Labrador, who went virtually unchallenged during the primary, get his turn in the barrel.

The rest of the primary soup in Idaho was pretty thin. Incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter won renomination, but a squad of challengers held him under 55 percent. Still Otter, a decades-long fixture in Idaho politics, seems well positioned for the fall. He will face first-time candidate Keith Allred, who had little opposition in the Democratic primary. Incumbent Republicans Crapo and Idaho’s other Congressman Mike Simpson seem on a sure glide path to re-election.

More tomorrow.