Kumbaya

Nothing unites like a common enemy.

Baseball has been fragmented for decades. Players and owners are perpetually at odds, wrestling over salaries and benefits, hurling accusations at each other, and dealing with several work stoppages, one of which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Teams battle home cities over financing of new stadiums, each insisting that the other bear the brunt of the expense. Fans lament escalating ticket prices, complaining that the game has been rendered unaffordable and taken away from fans for the benefit of millionaire players and billionaire owners. Owners battle owners over distribution of profits, with richer teams compelled to surrender large amounts annually to teams from smaller markets. Politicians square off against players and owners, seeking to clean up a sport altered by performance enhancing drugs, and utilizing federal prosecutions and Congressional hearings to get their point across.

Last week, however, these factions set aside their differences and aimed their collective bulls-eye at Jeffrey Loria and David Sampson, owner and president of the Miami Marlins.

The reason for baseball’s discontent was an international exchange of personnel by the Marlins and their American League counterparts, the Toronto Blue Jays. In one quick stroke, the Marlins shed themselves of more than $150 million in salaries, trading away several of their best and most expensive players for promising and inexpensive prospects.

Analysts almost universally agree that, from a pure baseball standpoint, the trade was good for the Marlins. A last place team wiped out long-term salary commitments that would have assuredly hampered its rebuilding efforts. The young prospects obtained by the Marlins are rated among the Blue Jays’ best, and some among baseball’s best.

But the player analysis does not tell the whole story. Last year, the Marlins opened the doors to their new $515 million stadium, largely financed by public funds. The Marlins, who under two ownership groups had a history of dismantling successful teams and placing profits over quality on the field, had convinced local politicians that a new stadium would bring a new approach to management. Gone, they said, were the days of penny-pinching and wholesale player sell-offs. With the new stadium, the Marlins would compete for top talent, and pay top dollar to do so.

Last December, the Marlins signed several high-priced free agents, announcing to all that better days had arrived. The team expected to contend for the National League East title, and expected to do so before near sellout crowds.

But the 2012 season did not go as planned. After a month of May in which the Marlins won more games than any other major league squad, the team fell apart. Injuries, lack of hitting and an inconsistent bullpen led to repeated losses on the field. And with those losses the Marlins changed course, trading three of their better players at mid-season for less experienced, inexpensive players. Amongst those traded away was Hanley Ramirez, an underachieving yet supremely talented infielder who had long been considered the face of the franchise. Not surprisingly, attendance dropped.

While the mid-season trades caused some concern about the team’s long-term plans, most believed that this would be a mere blip in the Marlins’ rise to prominence. The team had, after all, signed all that expensive talent during the off-season and promised its fans (and Miami-Dade County) that better days were ahead. Few expected a wholesale tradeoff of the very talent the team had recently acquired, which is why last week’s trade, which shed the Marlins’ payroll by more than fifty percent, has angered so many.

Local politicians who had supported public financing of the new stadium feel betrayed – they would not have agreed to the deal had they known that one year after debuting their new home, the Marlins would revert to their old ways and trade away most of their better players. Fans are outraged, realizing that the team will effectively field a minor-league squad in 2013 (and not making this apparent until after season-ticket holders had commenced payments on tickets for the coming season). Players traded away have stated that the Marlins lied to them when they were signed, promising that the team’s commitment to these players was long-term, despite refusing to include no-trade clauses in the players’ contracts. Player agents have warned that, given the Marlins’ apparent deception, it will be nearly impossible for the team to attract top free agent talent in the future, possibly dooming the team to a decade of mediocrity. And owners are concerned that the Marlins’ actions will make it difficult for other teams to obtain public financing for future stadiums – the relationship between host cities and teams will be governed by a mistrust fueled by the Marlins’ sell-out.

Despite the criticism, the Marlins’ management insists that its actions were necessary, and are best for the future of the franchise. By shedding expensive contracts, the team can go back to square one and try to build a winning squad from the bottom up, unencumbered by long term financial commitments. Other teams, most notably the 2012 Oakland A’s, have adopted a similar approach and achieved success on the field. The implication seems to be that team owner Jeffrey Loria should not be compelled to spend needlessly on a losing product. If he wishes to cut costs and pocket profit while the team rebuilds, it is certainly his right to do so.

But the logic of the Marlins’ argument has failed to mitigate the ill-will that this trade has generated.

The Marlins have achieved the near- impossible. With one controversial trade, the team has brought the warring factions of the game together. Players, owners, politicians, player agents, fans and media are united in their contempt for a Marlins ownership group which apparently never learned a basic tenet of human behavior:

Just because you can do something does not mean you should.

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A Call To Inaction

The dead matter more than the living.

Every year we take time away from our everyday endeavors to celebrate past lives and accomplishments. Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans’ Day are all national holidays which focus on lives past lived and offer tribute to those who lived them. As Americans, we are proud of our young heritage and relish the opportunity to celebrate those whose sacrifices have led us to what we deem supremacy. We have family cookouts, barbecues, fireworks – all celebrating who we are and how we got here.

But what is noticeably missing from these celebrations is a focus on where we are going.

As we wrestle with the quagmire of a weakened economy and political inertia, reflection on past accomplishments seems misplaced. The past two years have witnessed our two political parties slinging mud at each other while wrestling for control of Congress and the White House. The culmination of those misguided efforts was this week’s presidential election which, if nothing else, brought an end to those annoying political ads and late evening telephone calls from the Romney and Obama campaigns (a common occurrence for those of us in swing states).

The election brought us a victor, but did not bring us clarity. We still do not know whether we are heading in the right direction, and may not know for some time, which does not bode well for the years leading up to the next big election in 2016 (Gentlemen, start your engines!).

Perhaps part of the answer to our apparent lack of vision is time off. For some reason, Election Day, possibly the most important day of the year for Americans, a day which shapes our future, is treated by all (except the media) as any other day. We get up in the morning, vote (if we have not submitted absentee ballots) and go about our everyday lives as if nothing were different, as if the act of voting were nothing more than a slight inconvenience, a minor detour on our road to complacency. Despite the often contentious rhetoric that accompanies every election, apathy pervades.

Declaring Election Day a national holiday would heighten the significance of the event and likely mitigate some of the logistical issues that accompany every election. The average worker would no longer have to sneak away from work hoping to complete the process before his lunch hour expires. The long lines that seem to dominate the South Florida landscape every presidential election (particularly this past election) would be less visible, as voters would casually make their way to the polls and cast their ballots whenever convenient.

Most significantly, we would be announcing to the world that we do care about the living: we want to shape our nation’s future and not allow that future to be shaped for us. We are even willing to take time off from work to do it!

It makes perfect sense: a day of rest to reflect and plan; a natural holiday, complete with a turkey at the end of the evening.

Debatable Points

Facts are irrelevant.

The 1960 election established that form governs substance in presidential debates. JFK was crowned the victor in his head-to-head with Nixon not because of anything he said, but because he looked at ease before the camera, exuding confidence and sex appeal, while Nixon visibly perspired. Few remember what either candidate said during the 1960 debate. All remember the moisture on Nixon’s upper lip.

Last week’s showdown between President Obama and Governor Romney gave us more of the same. Romney was universally declared the winner because he appeared energetic and confident, while Obama was surprisingly and unexpectedly withdrawn.

The Democratic party has spent the days following the debate scrutinizing what Romney said last Wednesday, pointing to inconsistencies in his statements before the nation and questioning his honesty. But that does not alter the outcome of the initial contest. The time to highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s rhetoric was last week, when the cameras and the world’s attention were focused on our embattled President and his Republican challenger. And the person to attack those inconsistencies was Obama, not his disappointed supporters who have spent much of the week apologizing for the President’s lackluster performance and attempting to justify his uncharacteristic blunder.

Perhaps the President was affected by the altitude in Denver, as some have suggested. Or perhaps he was distracted by the on-going saga in the Arab world, something with which Obama, as president, must deal daily, while Governor Romney, whose full-time job is campaigning, focuses on mastering the art of verbal sparring.

Neither excuse suffices. President Obama dropped the ball on national TV, and opened the door for Romney and his backers to proclaim as wide open the race for leader of the free world.

The President will learn from his mistake. He will spend more time preparing for Round Two of the debates and come out swinging. What he says will not matter. How he says it will.

He will hope to erase the memory of last week’s performance, reminding the nation and the world that his election four years ago was due largely to the charisma he exuded. He was a rock star in the world of politics. But stars can fade, particularly for a president who fails to seize the opportunity to separate himself from his opponent and appears to all aloof, disinterested, and decidedly non-presidential.

Must See TV

Now comes the counterpunch.

Last night’s festivities in Tampa at the Republican National Convention concluded a week which brought us some of the brightest lights of the GOP (and Clint Eastwood) united in bashing the presidency of Barack Obama. Marco Rubio, Cuban-American Senator from my home state of Florida, referred to Obama as “a bad president,” a statement which echoed the underlying theme of the night: “It is time for a change” – or, as Clint told the partisan crowd and the empty chair to which he repeatedly turned: “It may be time for someone else to come along and solve the problem.”

The problem is the state of the U.S. economy, and the “someone else” is, of course, Mitt Romney, who accepted his party’s nomination near the end of the evening.

Pundits are busy breaking down and analyzing the impact of the Convention’s final evening. CNN.com ran a piece with the heading: “Did Mitt Romney Gain Ground”?

The answer is obvious: of course he did.

This happens every election year. A party’s National Convention leads to an immediate boost in the polls for that party’s candidate. So we should not be surprised when Romney’s numbers reflect an upward swing in the coming days. How could the result be different when that candidate has dominated the national airwaves (in prime time, no less) for the better part of a week?

Governor Romney should enjoy his upswing while it lasts because logic dictates that the numbers will readjust at the end of next week, when Democrats complete their swing through Charlotte. There will be no one at the Democratic National Convention indicting President Obama’s record. Rather, the blame will be placed on his predecessor, George W. Bush, and a Republican Congress whose stated goal was to ensure that Obama became a one-term president.

This past week did not win the election for Romney, and the coming week will not lose it. They are simply part of a process which began more than two years ago, when prospective presidential candidates commenced vetting their chances, and will end in early November, when votes are cast and a winner declared (unless, of course, we relive the uncertainty of 2000 when, thanks to many “hanging chads,” the election was not decided until close to the new year).

It all makes for compelling television, particularly when an election appears as close as this year’s.

September will be a busy month for television, with the networks introducing their new schedules and many of cable’s best shows (Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland) returning for new seasons.

But the focus in the coming days will be on the conclusion of perhaps the most important two weeks of Reality TV, which will set the stage for the next three months, and will undoubtedly impact the path our nation follows for the next four years.

In the end, two question emerge: Who will Democrats choose to counter Clint Eastwood’s star power? And will they bring their own chairs?

A Life

She was more sister than cousin. Memories of my early years are filled with images of the frail, pretty girl whose infectious smile and large hazel eyes masked the pain and uncertainty she carried inside.

She was not supposed to live past five. When doctors first diagnosed her heart ailment soon after birth her prognosis was poor. She underwent open heart surgery at age two, the first of several invasive procedures she would endure throughout her life. Doctors were far from optimistic about her long-term prospects. They encouraged my aunt to have another child to lessen the pain of her eventual loss.

Courage is often defined as action in the face of fear. The way she conducted her life exuded such courage. As a child she refused to be constrained by her condition. She danced, played and lived as if no malady existed. My aunt would warn her to slow down, worried that physical exertion would place undue strain on her heart. But she laughed off such fears and continued dancing, never admitting or letting anyone know that there was anything wrong.

She travelled, befriended and loved. The photographs of her wedding depict her glowing with excitement and anticipation, as she entered the next phase of her life. Her marriage lasted more than a decade, surviving further surgeries, illnesses and setbacks. In the end, her marriage would not survive the stroke she suffered at the age of thirty, leaving her incapacitated, with limited movement over half of her body.

Still she carried on, never feeling sorry for herself, and never losing her sense of humor or thirst for life. Her laugh was infectious, and she laughed often. She remained the little girl we all wanted to protect, even as she entered middle age.

She struggled with her computer, which became her constant companion and allowed her to stay in touch with the many people who came to know and love her. And love her we did –how could we feel differently for one who exuded such mischievous innocence?

She was far from perfect. She was set in her ways and stubborn to the edge of exhaustion. But I firmly believe that it was precisely this quality that enabled her to endure everything that life threw at her. She endured because she believed, and she believed because she loved life.

Carmen died last week in a hospital bed, a few days before her fifty-third birthday. In the end, her frail body could no longer withstand the complications of her affliction, and she moved on, leaving behind a world of memories.

As I think back over her years and picture her as she once was, I recall the closing lines of the 1971 TV film, Brian’s Song:

Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss and think of him often. But when they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember – but how he lived. How he did live!

Carmen lived well beyond all predictions, touching the lives of all with whom she came into contact. How she did live! If time is measured by impact, rather than hours and days, then her life was long and fruitful. She lived beyond time and stretched five decades into a thousand years.

Words With Friends

I see nothing but vowels; not a consonant in sight.

How do I create a word with three I’s sitting before me?

I am hooked. I no longer contemplate the mysteries of the universe. Instead, I focus on word structure and ponder how to make the most of what my I-Phone has given me.

The game is an electronic version of Scrabble. It can be played over hours, or days, or weeks (with some nudging for opponents who linger before making moves). I place letters into boxes, some marked DL or TL for “double or triple letters;” others labeled DW or TW, doubling or tripling the value of words.

Strategy will dictate what I do: Do I create a double value word even if it gives my opponent the opportunity to triple the value of his? Do I save my 10-point Z until I can enhance its value? Or does waiting create the risk that I will be unable to dispense of the letter and lose the 10 points when the game ends?

My friend Jeff is on a roll. In this match, he has come up with multiple words that have used all the letters before him, thereby earning additional bonus points. My letters, on the other hand, are unworkable. They sit before me and mock my linguistic impotence.

Three I’s? Really? How can I possibly hope to compete?

What finally sends me over the edge is VAULTING. The word has earned 60 points for Jeff, the third time in the past few hours he has eclipsed the half-century mark.

I reach out to him (texting is a prominent feature of the game, which is as much social media as contest): “Where are you getting these letters?”

He responds in typical Jeff fashion: “I assure you that whining and kvetching will not help – and I don’t use words like TALUK. What the heck was that?”

For the record, TALUK is a noun used in India. It is defined as “a hereditary estate” and “a subdivision of a revenue district.” I happened upon the word accidentally, while attempting to fit both an L and a K into a 5-box space.

My response to Jeff’s barb earns an electronic laugh: “No, but I am certain you will get the chance to use KVETCHING shortly.”

Some say that our increasing reliance upon smart phones has lessened our ability to communicate. We no longer look others in the eyes, but prefer instead to exchange short-hand electronic messages. The Norman Rockwell family of our era sits around the dinner table not sharing the day’s events, but doubled over phones, busily texting.

Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the dawn of instant communication is more curse than blessing, something we will regret in coming years, as each of us becomes increasingly isolated.

But I prefer not to dwell on such thoughts. Instead, I focus my energies on obtaining an U to go with my Q.

The Greatest

The crowd is electric. Eyes move restlessly, excitedly taking it all in: large Budweiser sign beyond the centerfield fence, tacky near-psychedelic home run structure (so Miami), men in military uniforms parading on the infield dirt. The retractable roof softly opens, unleashing rays of sun, like a blanket spreading over the green lawn.

It is opening day at the new Marlins Park. The sold-out stadium inches towards the first pitch, while fans in the stands celebrate, a buzzing of anticipation drowning out the PA announcer.

And then it stops.

All eyes turn to the giant scoreboard. A golf cart moves slowly from the outfield fence towards the infield. We can see Jeffrey Loria, Marlins’ owner, sitting beside a frail, old man. The PA announcer welcomes Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champion, who won his first title in Miami, who once laughed and shouted for all to hear: “I AM THE GREATEST FIGHTER OF ALL TIME!”

He has been ill for years. Parkinson’s has eaten away at his once classic physique, leaving behind a shadow of what once was.

Loria holds Ali’s left hand, preventing the uncontrollable shaking that has invaded the rest of his body. Many in the crowd look away. It is a difficult sight to behold.

The PA announcer urges fans to join in celebration of the man: “ALI! ALI!” he shouts. But few join in the chant, which is less celebration of life than wistful longing for a dead era.

I close my eyes and see him as he once was: strong, and brash, and young. He bounces gracefully around the ring, throwing jab jab jab, mixes left-right-left combination and then dances away. All the while taunting, boasting, talking – echoes of his voice like whispers through long-darkened arenas, like Ali himself ravaged by the passage of time.