Baseball, Kangaroos and Mr. Robinson

What, you might ask? One of best baseball players passed away earlier this week. Frank Robinson is the only major leaguer to win the Most Valuable Player award in the American and National Leagues. Even though others got more notoriety, Robinson was an excellent player and a born leader.

He was also outspoken which leads me to the kangaroo thing. He held a Kangaroo Court in the locker room after games, complete with a judge’s wig. The purpose was to tease players with small fines when they failed to sacrifice for the team. For the non-baseball fans, the failures focused on not bunting a player over, hitting to right field to let a runner go from first to third base, not running out hit balls that looked like outs, overthrowing the cut off man, etc.

Although, he had individual success, his teams succeeded. The Baltimore Orioles won two championships and played in four World Series, while his Cincinnati Reds played in one. That is what mattered most. He helped his team focus on what made them win.

He was an obvious choice to be the Major League’s first African-American manager. Since he was outspoken, he said a black manager won’t truly be treated fairly until he is fired like all other managers. In other words, if he did not succeed, his race should not stand in the way of his firing. That is a very profound thought.

So, let’s toast the life of Mr. Robinson. He hit many homers, more than only a few players, but he played and coaxed his team to win. And, that is the true goal, for the team to win, not just achieve personal success. There is a reason he became a manager. Kanga would be proud of this Roo named Mr. Robinson.

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The more I practice, the luckier I get

One of the better golfers and competitors of any era was a diminutive man from South Africa named Gary Player. He held his own against the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer winning nine major championships.

During one of his major wins, a reporter asked Player about a lucky shot Player had hit during the round that day. Player responded, “I have found the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

This straightforward answer applies to many things in life. Whether it is golf, basketball, baseball or another sport the more you practice the luckier you will get. But, it applies to music, art, school and work. The more time you practice, the luckier the outcome.

Golf is as good a metaphor of life as there is. In essence, playing golf is managing your mistakes. By practicing, the mistakes are narrowed. In other words, you can more easily find your golf ball in the realm of play after a shot the more you practice.

Very few golfers practice like Vijay Singh. Singh was a very good player, but made himself a great player through outlasting anyone on the practice tee. Herschel Walker, the Heisman Trophy winning football player made himself bigger and faster by doing over a thousand sit-ups, push-ups and wind sprints each day. That is not a misprint. Larry Bird made himself a better shooter by shooting countless shots  after team practice.

Per Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers,” The Beatles became better musicians by playing seven sets, six nights a week in Hamburg, Germany. To keep their sanity, The Beatles had to learn and play new songs.  Joe Walsh, who had many hits as an excellent guitarist and member of The Eagles said, the more you play the less awful you become.

So, practice and practice some more. You may get luckier or, at least, become less awful.

The Mighty Casey – Tribute to a Great Teacher

Queen Latifah, whose mother was a teacher, is hosting a documentary show called “Teach.” The show highlights the passion, caring, capability and tenacity of several teachers at various grade levels. Peppered throughout the show, are small segments where actors and others come into view and highlight teachers that made a difference to them. It caused my wife and I to reflect on the teachers that meant so much to us. I had several in my K-12 years, but I wanted to highlight one from my college days, as I had his classes several times. I will call him The Mighty Casey, which is actually a nickname from another venue. More on that later.

Teachers come in all forms, shapes, and styles. Some are more demonstrative than others, while some are fairly studious even in front of a class. The Mighty Casey was actually more of the latter. He had a great sense of humor, yet did not use it as part of his teaching method. He was interesting beyond his subject matter skills (more on that later), but did not use those interests as props in his lectures. His gift was his magnificent ability to explain complex things for many to understand. And, if you did not get it, he was very generous with his time after classes to help you understand. He was quite genuine and approachable. This man, who could have had a large-size ego on exhibit due his reputation and authoring of books and papers, was not one to condescend and make you feel stupid.

We even drafted him to play on our basketball team at the college, which may have been the worst team ever. As one of our departing gifts at graduation, we framed a quizzical picture of him in a rag-tag basketball shirt. I reflect on that with an open question – how many students would give a picture of their favorite professor wearing a ill-fitting basketball shirt? But, that was part of who The Mighty Casey was and is. His love of sports was a reason behind the nickname he chose for a radio sports talk show he used to call into.

The DJ had a quiz format at the end of each radio show. Over a period of months which turned into years, when the questions were not answered by any listeners, our professor would call in and correctly answer the question. Instead of giving his real name, he chose the nickname “The Mighty Casey.” Many Americans know the reference to the Mighty Casey, from a baseball poem about a hero who strikes out to end the game called “Casey at the Bat” written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer. But, our professor rarely struck out. He became so proficient, he became the go-to guy on tough questions, not unlike his ability to explain complex topics to students. When the DJ needed to conclude the quiz part of the show when it ran long, the DJ would ask if “The Mighty Casey,”  “Casey” or even “Case” was listening. He usually was and would call in and answer the question correctly. And, it was not unusual for him to provide some deeper context to the events around a question.

Not using his name on the sports quiz show is a look into the character of this great teacher. He did not desire the acclaim for his name. He just loved to share what he knew so others could learn. I think that is the best way to think of him. His joy was helping people learn. He did not want people to only know the answer. He wanted people to be able to solve for the next answer using what he taught them. The Mighty Casey was a mentor and teacher to many. He made a huge difference to my career and life. His patience, understanding and love of learning and teaching are remembered well by many people.

Thank you – The Mighty Casey. You did not strike out when it mattered the most. All the best to you and your family. Readers, please feel free to share your favorites and why. I would love to hear your stories.

Great Rivalries

Having just concluded a very exciting NBA basketball final pitting two great teams and players, I am reminded of when sporting events are at their finest. It is due to great rivalries, be it players or teams. Much of the rivalry’s greatness is due to opportunity and timing, but it is also due to proximity and passion. Tiger Woods will eventually be remembered as one of the greatest golfers ever. Yet, he has not benefitted from having a great rival, as he was a cut above for most of his career. Only when he had injuries and philandering issues, did the bloom fall of the rose.

Conversely, Jack Nicklaus had several rivals throughout his career that made his greatness more memorable. Very few people remember how he was not liked at first as he was a challenge to Arnold Palmer who was literally the first TV sports star. Arnie still won while Jack was around, but it made for great theatre, when the two dueled and it became obvious Jack was the better player. Gary Player, Lee Trevino and eventually Tom Watson were up to the challenge to battle Jack. Probably the greatest golf match I have seen was at the British Open, when Tom beat Jack by one stroke with both playing at their very finest and together at Turnberry.

Tennis has several examples of great rivalries, even today. More recently, to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in their epic battles at Wimbledon and the French Open is about as good as it gets. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe staged several memorable breakfasts at Wimbledon (with sequels at the US Open), especially during one of the longest tiebreaker matches I have witnessed, complete with a diving McEnroe during his eventual loss to Borg. On the women’s side, seeing Chris Evert, the best clay court player, and Martina Navratilova, the best grass and overall player, battle at Wimbledon and the US Open was also a privilege.

On the basketball court, it is usually more about team rivalries, but one that transcended into individual player rivalry were two team-oriented players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Magic’s team won five NBA titles to Larry’s three, plus Magic’s college team beat Larry’s team in their final year of college. Both were known more for their elegant and artful passing which had truly become a lost art. They made their teams better. The NBA was actually in trouble (with some finals played on TV tape delay) when the two joined the league and their rivalry brought it back to prime time.

Yet, teams sports are more about team rivalries, so the fact that Bird played for the Boston Celtics and Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers was fortuitous, as it was a coast to coast rivalry of excellence built over time dating back to the 1960s. That made their individual rivalry even greater to watch. While this was coast to coast, most team rivalries are legendary because of proximity and passion. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees rivalry is perhaps the best example in this country, but it may be “rivaled” on the college level by Duke University and the University of North Carolina, as they sit only eight miles apart.

Both sets of fans are passionate and their team’s success is as much a part of who they are as anything else. There are great HBO documentaries on both rivalries, but one of the things I most remember from watching them, is when the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees and eventually won the World Series about ten years ago, Red Sox fans would take pennants, bobble head dolls and ball caps to the cemetery to celebrate with their dad, mom, uncle or aunt who had passed away without witnessing a triumph over the Yankees in the playoffs. Their teams meant so much to the deceased, their children had to celebrate with them.

Please forgive me if I slighted your favorite rivalry. Ohio State/ Michigan, Alabama/ Auburn, etc. are all great rivalries. By not listing your favorite was only due to brevity not malice. And, please forgive this US centric post, as I am certain there are many rivalries that could “rival” the above. I would love to hear about some your favorites. Please share them for all to see.

Black History Month – A Lesson for the GOP

When I was in Chicago in late November, I had the pleasure of hearing an interview with Marshall Chess, the son of one of the founders of Chess Records which produced some of the greatest blues artists anywhere – Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf, Etta James and Chuck Berry are some names that are recognizable. I was captivated by the whole interview, but something said by Marshall struck me. He made the comment “it took British musicians to introduce white audiences in America to the blues’ legends.” He would routinely take calls from Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards and eventually would be asked by them to manage Rolling Stones Records in the late 1960s. More on this later.

While thinking of this, I was reminded of the courage that Jackie Robinson had to break the color barrier in Major League baseball. For those who follow baseball, Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League in baseball. The American League had the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two historically successful teams which were among the slowest to integrate. And, it eventually caught up with them. Why do I say this? It may surprise many, but the Red Sox had scouted and could have signed two ball players that would go on to change history in the game of baseball. You see the Red Sox could have signed both Henry Aaron and Willie Mays to their team and passed because they did not want to change with the times. Aaron would eventually break Babe Ruth’s home run record, but was much more than a power hitter as a player. Mays is probably the greatest baseball player that many of us will have ever seen play. I cannot think of a current player who can sustain the level of excellence that Mays did.

What do either of these stories have to do with the Republican Party, known as the Grand Old Party (GOP)? The GOP is not a very diverse political party and it is causing them some concerns. It should. The GOP has remained the party of old white men and they have been throwing themes around for the past few years of “taking our country back.” According to no less an authority than former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, GOP leaders must erase “the dark veil of intolerance.” And, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal noted last week “we have to stop being the stupid party.” Yet, the party looks only to change tactics rather than do some serious soul-searching.

These two Black History month stories, though, offer lessons of what can happen if you do not adjust with the times. As for Marshall Chess’ point, white audiences were exposed to white versions of the blues, but not the blues artists themselves. Elvis Pressley and Jerry Lee Lewis were huge sensations, but the artists that spawned their interest had to stand in the shadows. Since I am from the south, African-American artists were not permitted on white stations. Johnny Rivers made a career of singing songs written and performed by African-American artists. In the early to mid-1960s this began to change with something called “The British Invasion.”

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton and his various bands (Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes) were all heavily influenced by American blues artists. As a result, Clapton, Richards, Jaggar, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page, etc. all had a healthy foundation of blues music. So, while American pop music got very stale after Pressley started being a movie star, Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin – a PR disaster that destroyed his career, and Buddy Holly was killed, this new British sound was a force to be reckoned with. It was innovative and different to white American audiences.  In other words, American pop music was not changing with the times and it took others to show them the way. Others that were not as constrained with bigotry as we were in America.

The same held true for the Red Sox, Yankees and other American League teams. While these teams stayed less or not integrated, the National League teams signed eventual Hall of Fame African-American stars such as Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roy Campanella, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Orlanda Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Don Newcombe. It was not ironic that the National League dominated the All Star games which annually pitted the two leagues against each other from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. Once the Yankees great star, Mickey Mantle, faded in the mid-1960s, the Yankees were largely uncompetitive for several years. In other words, the American League stood still and did not adapt to the times until they got tired of being bested by the National League. Someone else had to show them the way.

The GOP is in this same position. They can choose to change tactics or they can look to see if their platform meets the needs of the changing demographics. If they do not do the latter, they are destined to become a minority party for years. The immigration issue is one of several. They cannot go on denying the truth in various issues such as man-influenced global warming, the huge success of the elite class at the expense of other Americans, gays and lesbians deserve equal rights and the need for access to healthcare to moderate costs and keep people from becoming bankrupt when a healthcare crisis occurs. If the GOP does not learn the lessons of the American League or American pop music, it will take others to show them the error of their ways.

Failure is a great teacher, but you have to be willing to learn from it. Is the GOP up to learning the lessons of Black History?

 

Bobby Murcer – not a star, but a hero nonetheless

One of my childhood heroes was a baseball player out of Oklahoma City who had both the fortune and misfortune to follow in the footsteps of Mickey Mantle. Like Mantle, Bobby Murcer was not only from the same state, but he started in centerfield for the New York Yankees where Mantle roamed so long and so well, before his body breakdown sent him to play first base. I rooted for Murcer as I did for Mantle. I wanted for him to succeed like his predecessor both individually and as a teammate. Yet, I continued to root for him throughout his career that led him away from the Yankees and then back again.

You see Bobby Murcer was not the star everyone had hoped him to be. There are few Mickey Mantles and when we witness them we should greatly appreciate them. Murcer was a simply a very good ballplayer and teammate regardless of where he played. At 5’11” and 160 lbs., he was not a physically imposing person. Yet, he was an All Star for five years and won a Gold Glove for excellent fielding in one year. He also drove home over 1,000 runs with his hits and scored just underneath a 1,000 runs with his feet. And, along the way, he hit over 250 home runs. For the non-baseball fans, I don’t want to make this about statistics, though.

You see, in spite of not being a star or idol, Bobby Murcer was one of my heroes.  He died in 2008 at the age of 62, so he is not around to read this. However, I believe there are many like me who just rooted for this guy because of who he was not and who he was. There are very few true stars in life. Most of the successful people are very good at what they do and work hard at. Murcer exemplified this. Yet, he was more than that. He was a good teammate and friend. This came to bear on one of the worst days and greatest nights in Yankee history and it had nothing to do with winning one of their many World Series championships.

It was the day another Yankee was buried after a plan crash that killed him – Thurman Munson. Like Murcer, Munson came up with the Yankees at the same time. Munson had greater success than Murcer on the field, but was very similar in that both were of the same ilk – hard-working good ball players. And, both were heroes for the same reason. On August 6, 1979, Munson was buried in front of his teammates in Canton, OH. Murcer gave a eulogy having just rejoined the Yankees a few months before. That says a lot about their friendship. Murcer quoted Angelo Patri about Munson:

“The life of a soul on earth lasts longer than his departure. He lives in your life and the life of others who knew him.”

The same could be said about Murcer upon his passing. I could end the story there, but the magic of the evening must also be told. The Yankees flew from Canton to New York to play a game on national TV that night against the Baltimore Orioles. Note, this was before the plethora of games on TV, so it was a grander event which included Howard Cosell as one of the announcers who always played a big crowd and event. Billy Martin, the manager was not going to play Murcer, but the latter insisted. Down 4 to 0 late in the game, Murcer played like there was an angel sitting on his shoulder. He first hit a three run homer to close the gap. And, if that were not magical enough, he ended the game with a two run single to win it for the Yankees and Munson’s memory. I am tingling as a type this as it was truly something to behold.

Bobby Murcer was not likely a hero to many, but on that night he was a hero to all who watched. And, he is my hero forever. A toast to all who are good at what they do and work hard to be the very best at it. Thanks for letting me share this. Happy Thanksgiving all.