Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Athletes are not heroes, but Gary Carter was

Gary Carter - Hall of Famer and hero
It was the middle of the night in late October 1986 and I was listening to the radio as I lay in my bed, in a dark, damp, dingy bed-sit in Dublin. I was feeling despondent - yes despondent - when Gary Carter delivered a serious shot of hope for the New York Mets and, thus, for me.

Fans of the Mets and the Boston Red Sox who are old enough remember clearly how that 10th inning of the 6th game of the 1986 World Series played out. As far as I'm concerned it was Carter and not Mookie Wilson nor Ray Knight, both of whom feature in the most famous clips from that game, who delivered the biggest blow for the Mets in that inning/game/series. It was Carter who spit in the eye of despair and sprinkled the Mets and their fans with hope.

Hope. That's what was missing in that last inning of (what would have been) that last game. When Carter got his hit he changed the mood. I could feel it from 3,000 miles away. I could sense it despite the fact it was 5:00 in the morning and despite my pitch black surroundings and I had nothing but a radio for company. I could feel that tingle and it was thanks to Carter, who declared: "We're not done."
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I remember as I was listening to that inning unfold I kept thinking about Carter - how I'd actually never been fair to him; how I'd never really liked him. As my hopes mounted with the Mets' rally I kept asking myself what is it about me that I never warmed to Gary Carter? I had often considered what it was about Carter that  bothered me, but in that moment when he'd demonstrated - again - that he was a winner I turned the question around so that it was me that I was wondering about.

What was it about me that I couldn't take to Carter the way I did the other players on that team? I knew, but I didn't understand why. Carter's overt wholesomeness turned me off.

Carter stood out on that Mets team because he seemed too good to be true. He was never in the papers for the wrong reason. He never seemed to have anything bad to say about anyone. He didn't seem to curse, even. He always played hard. He was always smiling. What's not to like, right? Yet I didn't.

I was cynical and when I think back on it, what on Earth did I have to be cynical about? I was young and the world was my oyster, but for some reason I liked those players who were ... a bit edgy. Carter certainly was not edgy. Most of the Mets were Rock n Roll, but Carter was Christian folk music.

Everything I knew about Carter (and everything I've read and heard about him since) told me that Carter was a model ballplayer and a model citizen. I should have idolized him, but I didn't.

A few years ago I was listening to the Mets' radio announcers talking about their profession during a rain delay. The two announcers were talking about how players will confront the announcers when they make a critical comment.

Then Howie Rose said that only once in his career had he heard from a player after making a positive remark. It was Gary Carter. He had heard something Rose had said and sought him out just to say "Thank you." When I heard that story all I could think was, "What was wrong with me when I was 21?"

You'll often hear it said that athletes are not heroes. Well most of them are not, but by all accounts Gary Carter was. His performance on the baseball diamond was heroic. His attitude to life was heroic. His devotion to his family was heroic. His courage in the face of the brain cancer that took his life was heroic.

Of all the tributes to Carter that I've heard and read since he died last Thursday the most poingnant and most telling was from his often-troubled 1986 Mets' teammate, Darryl Strawberry who simply said, "I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter. He was a true man."

"I wish I could have lived my life like Gary Carter." He didn't wish he had played like Carter, but lived like him. Carter's example is something that Strawberry now sees as a model to follow. That's heroic.

Of course I didn't know Carter as Strawberry did, but in that one moment in 1986 he had an impact on me. He forced me to confront something in me that I thought needed correcting. Over time, as I grew up (okay, grew older) and I learned more about Carter the man I realized there was nothing to dislike in him. It was in me. He helped make me a better person. That's what heroes do.

{Photo from the Newark Star Ledger.}

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why on Earth is London hosting the Olympic Games?

Counting down the days/hours/minutes/seconds until the
London Olympic Games are opened
– in front of the National Gallery
London is hosting the Olympic Games this summer, but for the life of me I can't understand why. Why is London hosting the Olympics?

Back in 2005 when London "won" the bid to host this summer's Games, the British government - funders of this extravaganza - claimed that the games would cost the British taxpayers £2.4bn ($4.2bn). Inevitably the costs have risen. Now it's estimated that the games will cost anywhere from £9bn ($14bn) up to £24bn ($37bn).

Let's stick to the lower end of that scale and estimate the British taxpayers' final bill at around $20bn. Twenty billion dollars. Just in case you're not sure, yes, $20bn is a lot of money for the UK government. They have their own economic and budgetary problems, as yesterday's Moody's announcement highlights. So, again, the question again arises: why? Why is London hosting the Olympics?

I was in London yesterday. As the plane was taking me to the UK's capital I was wondering how much Olympic hype I'd be confronted by. I figured I'd see billboards at every train station, buses featuring huge Olympic ads and Olympic merchandise everywhere. I couldn't have been more wrong.

In fact, other than the ridiculous Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square {photo} and one billboard at an Underground station {photo below} I saw virtually nothing shouting Olympics at me. Okay, one or two airlines had Olympic-themed ads around the city, but really, it was as if the Olympics were five years away and not five months.
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The lack of Olympic hype I experienced yesterday convinced me that Londoners don't need the Olympics to  believe their city is special. They already know it is. So, again, why? Why is London hosting the Olympics?

I understand why some cities want to host the Olympics. The Olympic Games can put a city/region on the map. Acting as host of the Olympics can showcase a city as a potential tourist destination and, maybe, if the games are deemed a success (and are they ever not these days?) maybe businesses will take a closer look a locating in the area. Atlanta made perfect sense to me in that way. Rio de Janeiro makes similar sense, I suppose.

But London? London doesn't need the Olympic Games to entice tourists. In fact, I suspect the Games will deter as many from visiting this summer as will ultimately turn up to watch. London is already one of the great cities of the world. I can't imagine there is anyone, anywhere who needs to see Synchronized Swimming or the Hammer Throw or the Modern Pentathlon from a London arena to be sold on the idea of visiting London.

Same goes for business, only double. I'd love to meet the corporate executive who opts to locate his operation in London having only considered such a move after catching the Weightlifting finals. Honestly.

So if the Olympics are not going to help bring tourists or new businesses to London then why is London hosting the Olympics?

Ad for official Olympic merchandise at a London Tube station
The funny thing is, the Olympics do have the potential to be a real negative for London. Whereas many thousands of visitors to London have experienced the oppressive heat of the city's un-airconditioned underground trains and hotel rooms, their experiences are mostly individual. That could change with the anticipated, excessive coverage of this summer's Games, which could bring this issue front and center to people all around the world. Unless ... the weather is miserable and another fact known to many of London's visitors is suddenly a big talking point for a global audience.

Then there are other possible pitfalls. I read the other day that Britain's stretched mobile phone and other telecomunications networks could crash during peak demand for internet services during the Olympics. What a great ad for London that will be – a global audience being told the UK's infrastructure can't cope with modern communication demands.

When the Olympic committee announced that the 2012 Games were going to be held in London Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a "momentous day" for London and Britain. It may well turn out to be exactly that, only in a London-is-really-falling-apart type way. {And let's not forget that Mayor Bloomberg tried to get the Olympics to come to New York, which would have been equally stupid for all the same reasons.}

Great cities should not want the Olympics. The Games are too costly, too intrusive, unneeded for promotion and potentially more damaging than beneficial. So, why, oh why, is London hosting the Olympic Games?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ireland's leader Enda Kenny pays no price for bad-mouthing the Irish people

Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Enda Kenny speaking at the
World Economic Forum
in Davos, Switzerland.
Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny will be speaking at Harvard University on February 16 and if his past form is anything to go by, he will denounce the Irish people as a bunch of over-educated elitists in the hope of eliciting praise from the Harvard audience. Or something like that.

I can hear you from here. "This guy's nuts. No elected leader would do such a thing."

You may well be right about his upcoming Harvard appearance, but ten days ago Kenny did essentially that when he 'explained' to a gathering in Davos, Switzerland that the Irish people "went mad borrowing," which led to "a spectacular crash" in our economy.

When I heard what the Taoiseach had said I was gobsmacked. I fully expected there to be political uproar in Ireland. At a minimum I was expecting him to be forced into some form of ignominious climb-down. I was sure there would be blood.

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I was wrong. A few people made noise arguing that the Taoiseach was wrong, but some popped up to back-up Kenny including the editor of The Irish Times.

Within a few days it was all over. Done, dead, forgotten. The firestorm I anticipated less than a lighted match. Once again I totally misread the political mood of the Irish people.

It wasn't what Kenny said that I thought would excite people. It was where he said it and to whom.

Sure there was some truth in what Kenny said. Many of us did "go mad." There was a fever here in the years running up to 2006/07. People - regular people, not millionaires or whatever - were desperate to own that second home to rent out or to own an apartment in Bulgaria or Croatia. There were ads on the radio from law firms and businesses offering their legal, translation and other services to people keen to own that little slice of the Baltic region. Others spent like there was no tomorrow, usually on their credit cards. I didn't understand it then and I understand it even less now.

However, the madness of the people was more a symptom than a cause of our troubles. And what, exactly, caused our troubles you may well ask?

The old saying holds that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. Well, in Ireland our orphan - the economic failure - has a thousand paternity suits. Nobody is claiming the baby, but a lot of people are pointing the finger at those who might be the father.

The truth is there were many factors that led to our collapse. Our bankers, our regulators, our central bank, our government, even ourselves all failed to keep in check what should have been kept in check. Too many impulses were allowed to run riot.

However, some of the factors that drove us into this dismal state were external. The people who designed the euro failed Ireland. Europe's banks - the kingpin drug dealers who fed our banks' habits - failed Ireland. The European Central Bank and other European regulators failed Ireland. EU economists and civil servants failed Ireland.

And it was this latter group who were in the audience that day when Kenny pointed the finger of blame as those at home. I still can't believe he did that.

Only a short eight weeks earlier Kenny had gone on live prime-time television to tell us we weren't to blame, but we'd have to shoulder the costs. If he believed it was the fault of the Irish people, that our "greed" got the better of us, he should have said so in that television address. He would have annoyed some people, but many would have acknowledged there was some truth in his view. He would have been seen as providing some leadership.

He didn't do that however. No, he waited until he had an audience of wealthy fat cats, many of whom were complicit in what happened here and whose bone-headed investments in our banks the Irish people were covering, to explain that it was the Irish people's fault.

Implicit in his speech was that those bone-headed European bankers were not to blame. Eurocrats - in the clear too. Same goes for all those involved in the design and management of the euro. He left Ireland to go to an exclusive gathering of the world's elite at a ski resort in Switzerland to tell them not to worry, it was all our fault. They weren't to blame.

This is why I was so sure that there would be a major political backlash against Kenny. Surely such gutlessness would require a price. Surely the press and opposition and the people generally would be all over him, possibly even calling for him to resign. How wrong I was.

Kenny read the Irish public's mood correctly - too cast down to speak up. By doing so he won some friends in Davos. Maybe someday they'll be able to return the favor.

{Photo - Michel Euler of the Associated Press.}

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I'm a disappointment to Ireland's NFL fans

Eli Manning & Tom Brady - known
to many  Irish sports fans.
There's so much hype here, in Ireland, that I'm beginning to believe I'm the only man in Ireland who doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl. Everyone seems to be talking about it. Okay, not everyone and undoubtedly the Ireland vs Wales rugby game Sunday afternoon is a bigger deal here, but I can't get over the interest in the NFL these days, especially among men under 35 or so.

There's loads of talk about the Super Bowl on the radio, in the newspapers even among men chatting in the pub. Of course I find myself included in loads of Super Bowl conversations. People only have to hear my accent and they engage me in a Super Bowl discussion. Unfortunately, I don't really know enough about football today to hold up my end of the bargain unless we take a diversion back to Super Bowls of the 70s.
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So this Sunday when I tune in it's more out of curiosity than as a real fan. And I'll probably only watch the first half, but no more than that. I can't stay up late enough for the whole Super Bowl.

You have to remember, by the time they finally kick off in Indianapolis it will be 11:18pm here. That's a big part of what amazes me about the interest here. The game is on so late and, of course, it's endless. Yet so many people will watch it to the end. {I wonder how much bigger the audience in Europe might be - extra $$ - if the NFL moved the kick-off up by 90 minutes.}

I can't say exactly when I lost my keenness for pro football, but my interest had waned significantly before I had moved to Ireland in '91. When I was in school I watched 6 hours of football every Sunday. I rooted like crazy for my team to win and suffered when they lost. Somewhere, somehow that left me.

None of this would be an issue if it weren't for the fact that every Irish NFL fan I meet seems disappointed that I can't match their knowledge and excitement and provide them with the conversation they crave. Sure I know who Tom Brady & Eli Manning are, but after that I don't know much about any of the others playing on Sunday.

Back in 1986 when I came here as a student, there was a weekly NFL highlight show on TV. It was weirdly, wildly popular, but those who watched didn't really get to know the game. These days Irish fans can watch two or three full games a week - and many do - and they follow internet message boards and take part in fantasy football leagues and so on. They really know the game and I disappoint them when they get talking to me.

Over the years I've gotten used to the fact that there are Irish people who know more about American politics than I do - and I feel like I'm keen follower. Yet, somehow I feel like I'm letting others and myself down by not being able to discuss football with them.

If only the Irish were as interested in baseball. That I could talk about knowledgeably and enthusiastically for hours, days even. Baseball doesn't appeal, unfortunately. Football has gripped the Irish sports fan. I don't know which of the two teams is the favorite with Irish fans, but I'll be giving half a cheer for the Giants simply because they're the NY team.

It's not the Super Bowl, but tonight's college basketball game from the Bronx featuring the Iona Gaels and the Manhattan Jaspers has me excited. If I'm going to stay up late for anything it will be this game - a full-throated Go Jaspers from me.

UPDATE: Jaspers lost. These things happen. Plenty of basketball still to be played this month.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

It may be a stereotype, but the Irish do great funerals

Deansgrange Cemetery, Co Dublin
Nothing stays the same, even death, in Ireland as elsewhere. The traditional rituals and ceremonies surrounding an Irish funeral are not what they were 100 or even 50 years ago. Yet, as I learned this past week, death in modern Ireland, even in suburban Dublin, still retains many of the old ways.

When I was growing up an Irish wake was the subject of a joke built around a stereotype of Irishness. "What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake? One less drunk." Unflattering, yet my teen self often wondered what was so bad about a celebratory wake? Everything I knew about death seemed so forbidding and frightening that I kind of liked the idea of laughing in its face.
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A couple of weeks ago I heard a man on the radio say that everyone always describes the Irish as "repressed," but that this was not true when it comes to death. I thought then and I'm more convinced now that he's right. Yes Ireland is changing, becoming more ... American, but still death is discussed and handled in a more natural way here than it generally is in America.

Marking a death in Ireland is a multi-step process. The wake is in the deceased's home, not a funeral home. This first step in an Irish death is fading away, unfortunately.

I was only once at a wake in a home and it was a great experience. Took me a couple of minutes, but I soon realized that waking an old woman in the room in which she spent most of her life was the most natural thing in the world. Her family and neighbors and friends were all gathered around her praying, crying, laughing, and just talking about her. Perfect.

Next is 'the removal,' which is in the evening. I'm not certain, but I think it's only a Catholic tradition. The deceased is 'removed' from either their home, if waked, or the funeral home if not and brought to the church. Tradition calls for a procession to follow the hearse to the church on foot for at least the last few hundred yards if not more. There are a few prayers in the church and then everyone comes to offer the family their condolences.

The removal in the evening is a great idea because not everyone who'd like to go to the funeral can take the day off work to attend. The removal allows them to pay their respects outside the working hours.

The funeral isn't really much different than what you'd see at a traditional funeral in America. After the funeral most people go to the graveyard in a procession that passes by the deceased's house along the way. At the graveyard there are more prayers as casket is lowered into the grave.

The whole process finishes in a local hostelry, where funeral-goers gather to take a bite of lunch and a few libations. Often there may have been some time spent in the pub after the removal the night before. And, indeed, if there is a wake there may be "drink taken" then too. You know what? I don't care. Even if the death of a loved one does turn into something of a three day party, so what?

Do some people overdo it? Of course, but those same people overdo it at weddings, christenings, football games and Wednesday afternoons when they have nothing better to do. The majority of the people are merely enjoying themselves, usually with stories about the deceased.

It's a great time for stories to be handed down from one generation to the next. Who would prefer a morose gathering from which people can't wait to escape? Not me. I think it's far better to be recalled with laughter and with stories that keep memories alive. If death is inevitable then it's best followed by an Irish funeral.

{Photo from William Murphy on flickr.com.}