Monday, August 31, 2015

Shooting the messenger

As we sweat the last few days of summer, the rhetoric and changing dynamics of the campaign for president has become far more interesting than I would have thought at this early stage of the game. On the Republican side, the plethora of candidates and the willingness of Donald Trump to say whatever is on his mind has created a circus-like atmosphere.

On the Democratic side of the scrum, a primary process that once appeared to be a formality for Hillary Clinton is growing more competitive as left-most Senator Bernie Saunders draws huge crowds and has been closing the gap in polls. While Saunders’ popularity has all but crushed Rhode Island’s own Lincoln Chafee’s plans to be relevant for once, it has also opened a door for Vice President Joe Biden. While Biden has his flaws (again, the tendency to say anything that springs to mind), he would also be the sentimental favorite of many traditional Democrats and a home for the anyone-but-Hillary crowd that pushed Obama to victory over her in 2008.

While voters usually don’t see the behind the scenes chaos at these campaigns, we can imagine the insanity. One of Trump’s advisors was recently fired (although he says he quit first) because he disagreed with the strategic direction of the campaign. He wanted the candidate to do a poll and stay on message while the candidate was intent on attacking the media and calling the moderator “a bimbo.” If he quit, good for him. If he was fired, also good for him, but I think the proverbial messenger got the axe.

Which brings me to the place I usually end up. WHAT is going on with the Red Sox? Last week they managed to fire the one person who has executed his job perfectly for 14 years with few errors, lots of homers and a ton of wins. For those of you living under a rock, NESN announced that Dave O’Brien (who is just fine) would be the play-by-play person for the Red Sox in 2016, taking the chair that Don Orsillo has occupied since 2001. Don has been “the guy” next to Jerry Remy for the best TV years of the franchise and is apparently getting blamed for a drop in NESN’s ratings. WOW. Is Wally going to get canned when the Monster Seats don’t sell out? Maybe they should fire the ticket takers when the attendance drops below 30,000.

While I can’t begin to understand NESN’s thinking, I can say that Don and Jerry have made an unbearable season worth watching and their banter has kept me entertained during some pretty boring stretches of baseball. If you haven’t seen Don and Jerry’s calling of the famous pizza throwing incident at Fenway, it’s worth watching for a good laugh and a good look at why he means so much to Boston fans.

Like Trump’s antics, the team’s bad moves are beginning to wear thin and no amount of promotions and saccharine ads will bring back a fan base if the team is seen as being disloyal to those who have served as its best messengers. I just hope that this doesn’t bring us the curse of the Orsillo — I want to see another World Series win in my lifetime.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Keeping a streak alive

Over the course of this miserable season there have been a few days where it seemed that the Red Sox might be able to put a run together after several well-played and well-pitched games. These elusive games are called “wins” and three (or more) in a row constitute a streak. Sadly, we’ve had too few streaks and too little success to make this season anything but a losing one.

Many Rhode Islanders have heard about a win streak of a different kind in the news recently. Rhode Island has some the highest vaccination rates of any state in the country — and that’s very good news. More than 82% of Rhode Island toddlers have received the measles, mumps and rubella series, the highest in the U.S. Rates for children in the same age group for varicella (chickenpox) and hepatitis B were both greater than 96%, also the country’s highest. For children entering school, rates for the vaccines against chicken pox, hepatitis B, tetanus, pertussis, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella were above 92%, well above the national averages. This is something to celebrate and a streak to sustain. Vaccines are the single most significant achievement in public health and are the sole reason why many of us have never seen so many of the dreadful diseases listed above.

The Rhode Island Department of Health recently recommended adding a requirement for HPV (human papillomavirus) to the vaccine schedule for children entering middle school. HPV is so common that almost every sexually active person will contract it at some time. Certain strains of HPV cause cancer, making this the first vaccine against cancer. Some Rhode Islanders are pushing back on the requirement but I am hopeful that science will prevail over anti-government paranoia and we can keep our streak alive. There will always be a small portion of the population that remains unvaccinated for religious reasons and those who can’t be immunized because of another medical condition, but for the rest of us, there’s no reason to skip this vaccine.

For full disclosure, I worked with the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine a decade ago as they were bringing the vaccine to market. I was proud to work on a cancer vaccine and was glad it would be available to my children (then just 1 and 3), so if I sound like I am a vaccine homer, I am. In the course of my work I spoke with parents whose children contracted a vaccine-preventable disease and their agony is far worse than the pain of a shot in the arm.

Some people have asked why is the vaccine requirement itself so important and why is it appropriate for children entering middle school. The requirement is critical to establish “herd immunity”, to prevent an outbreak and protect those who are unable to be vaccinated. While most middle school children are not sexually active, as children get into high school and beyond (when they are sexually active), regular doctor visits are fewer and further between, making middle school entry one of the last opportunities for a captive audience. If you don’t want to talk to your kids about sex when they get this vaccine, then don’t. Just let them know that you are protecting them and their friends against cancer later in life — and keeping a good win streak alive. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Just a game with no heroes

The 2015 season is very much over for the Red Sox. We have no pitching ace, the offense is spotty and last week when star closer Koji Uehara broke his wrist, the fat lady belted out an encore to make sure that her earlier song was not mistaken for a warm up ditty.

While seeing the team implode is unfortunate, baseball is just a game — and professional baseball is just a business. NESN can create all kinds of heartstring tugging commercials to keep us hooked but I suspect many other local fans are feeling as I am this week — not remotely interested in baseball and deeply saddened by the loss of a local hero.

I did not know Andrew McKenna. It seems odd in a small town with few military families, but from his record, it’s clear that he’s been serving our country in faraway hellholes for much of his career. A fellow Green Beret was quoted in the Army Times saying, "He's been in the military for 17 years, and there's not a day of the war that he missed, and at every point of his career, he volunteered to go further into harm's way. He's that guy who raises his hand and says, 'yeah, I'll go.'"

The word hero is thrown around far too much these days. I am sure I’ve said that David Ortiz was a “hero” in 2004. I was wrong. Heroes don’t play baseball. Heroes help other people by doing things that the rest of us can’t or won’t do. We have professional heroes in our communities like police and firefighters and others that rise to the occasion in a time of crisis. And then there are heroes among us like Andrew McKenna — they volunteer to serve in our military, take the most difficult assignments and do things that we don’t even want to know about in places that we don’t want them to be. They do their work day in and day out without recognition and with the knowledge that their sacrifices are barely understood or appreciated by the people they serve.

Living in our little corner of Rhode Island is a bit different of course. Our big 4th of July celebration brings smiles and tears every year while flags on every porch and our red white and blue stripe tell any visitor and remind any locals that we are proud Americans. I hope that these sights are daily reminders to the loved ones of Master Sergeant McKenna that we mourn their loss, appreciate his sacrifice and are eternally grateful to have had a real hero among us.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Making a run at the Hall of Fame

Last weekend Red Sox great Pedro Martinez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a fan favorite in Boston while he was he was a player and thrilled super fans when he returned to Boston and took a job with the organization in 2013. He was a dominant pitcher — baffling batters with his blazing fastball all while seeming to enjoy his own private joke at the expense of his opponents. When he pitched it was always must-see TV and in top form, he was almost unhittable. His career took place entirely within the “steroid era,” making it that much more astonishing that he was able to perform so well against batters who may have been on performance enhancing drugs. He had some low moments as well — manager Grady Little failed to get him off the mound and Pedro was responsible for four runs in the 8th inning of the 7th game of the ALCS against the Yankees in 2003. He also acted a bit like a petulant teenager when the Red Sox added another ace to the team to secure the 2004 World Series win. After that amazing season Pedro left Boston, bringing his talents to the Mets and then the Phillies for a few unremarkable years before retirement.

Like Pedro, Vice President Joe Biden came to prominence in another era. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and before being sworn in his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident while out Christmas shopping. His sons were badly injured and as a now single father, Biden then shouldered the tremendous burden of raising two children in Delaware while working in Washington, D.C. The Senate was a different institution then, probably best described as clubby — nearly all white, all male (with no women serving in the Senate with Biden until 1978) and with no need for a filter. Biden was a product of the Senate — and a creature of it as well — popular among his colleagues and well respected in Washington circles. He was the go-to talking head on foreign relations and was believed to have been picked as a running mate by Barack Obama for his deep international experience.

Like Pedro, Biden has had low moments — and has behaved more like he was elected in the ‘70s than in this decade. A quick Google search of “Biden inappropriate comment” yields a plethora of instances where the Vice President did or said something way outside the buttoned up norms of today. Some are hilarious, some are naughty and some make you wonder how he has managed to escape the ire of leading women’s organizations who would have excoriated anyone else for the same language.

Now one of the most interesting storylines developing in this presidential campaign is “What will Joe do?” If he joins the race, he will be navigating some difficult political waters as he will need to put together support from various factions in the Democratic Party who have not joined the Clinton bandwagon and who have not always been thrilled with the Obama administration. Being the sitting Vice President can be an electoral blessing or a curse and distancing himself from the administration he has been part of could create a whole new blooper reel for his opponents to use against him. I can hardly predict the future but a Biden run seems more like Grady leaving Pedro in too long than a winning campaign for the White House. If he retires now, he’ll still be a hall of famer.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tis the season for super fans

The baseball season is a long one and when the Sox are in a particularly gruesome stretch, I often think of my friends who root for teams like the San Diego Padres or the Milwaukee Brewers. For them, almost every season feels like a futile undertaking and to make matters worse they have no World Series titles — ever — to look back on and celebrate.

I have to believe that supporters of presidential candidates like Lincoln Chafee and Rick Santorum are beginning to feel like fans of these historically bad teams. I suppose that Rick Santorum supporters can look back on the 2012 GOP primary when he won 11 primaries and caucuses (coming in second to Mitt Romney) as the high point, but with so many GOP candidates in the race for 2016, it seems unlikely that a candidate so far on the right will have any shot at the nomination. His supporters and staffers are the equivalent of super fans — those diehards who talk more about prospects than current standings and who paint themselves with war paint when a team is a mere 5 or 6 games back. A few years ago there was a super fan with Brewer fever who set up a website called “Pee Your Pants for the Brewers” and he and thousands of others pledged to wet themselves if the Brewers made the playoffs. Sadly (or thankfully?) the Brewers did not make the playoffs and there was much less laundry to tend to in Milwaukee.

Rhode Island’s own Lincoln Chafee has an even steeper cliff to climb in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The somewhat meteoric rise of Senator Bernie Sanders as the true voice of the left side of the Democratic party has been a bit of a surprise for many and probably took any chance the Chafee might have to become part of the conversation. After all, someone who has been elected to public office only as a Republican or an Independent might have a hard time convincing “real” Democrats that he was more suited to carry their banner than the lifelong Democrats he’s running against. Don’t take my word for it though — a Monmouth University poll came out last week with some bad news for the Chafee camp. Of the 1,001 adults surveyed, not one said they would vote for him for president. The last time I can remember hearing so many chuckles about a 0.0 was when Mr. Blutarsky’s mid-term GPA was announced in “Animal House”.

Unlike a MLB team in the middle of a bad season, presidential candidates can bow out of the race gracefully and spend their time and resources on doing something for the public good. Both Santorum and Chafee have long records of public service and could probably find a better way to use their time than trying to garner 3% of the vote. We can all hope that neither one of them catches Brewer fever.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Better results ahead

This year the All-Star break provides a short respite from the day-to-day grind of wondering whether this Red Sox team will ever peek out of the basement of the AL East. We have had short streaks of good games, followed by some so-so games and a few stinkers thrown in between painful losses. We are 6.5 games out of first place and have been bottom dwellers for the first part of the season. The good news is that only one member of the Red Sox will be playing in the All-Star game, so the rest of the team can have some much needed rest for the next few days. Most importantly, some of the team’s best games have been recent ones, so the trend line is good and we can hope for 2nd half comeback.

Is it me or is the trend line improving for Rhode Island as well? Good things seem to be happening and some of the recent statistics I’ve seen show that our economy is FINALLY picking up. Unemployment stands at 5.9% — or 37th in the country. It would be great to be closer to Massachusetts at 4.6%, but hey, we’re beating Connecticut  at 6%. I certainly understand that the numbers don’t tell the full story and that some people have stopped looking for work, many have moved away and that some people are making less than they were two years ago, but just eighteen months ago, we were at 9.1% and were the highest in the nation, so I am just glad we’re getting to a better place.

Another good sign is that Providence has finally grabbed the reins on the 195 land and has reached an agreement with the state on tax breaks to businesses that build on the property. I’m tired of hearing from Rhode Island’s whiny “NO” crowd about why we shouldn’t be providing tax incentives or breaks to businesses who want to locate here. The reality is that we are competing with cities and states that offer incentives and have a more educated workforce, better schools and a more business-friendly environment. We need to be competitive and I am thrilled that we have finally taken a step forward to make this piece of Providence more attractive to businesses.

Lastly, it’s great to have leadership that we can get behind. I’ll admit to being a “homer” and being very impressed with Governor Raimondo’s first six months. She and her team have been focused on getting our economy moving and creating jobs. While she can’t take all the credit for our economy heading in the right direction, having a governor who sells Rhode Island so well and understands our strengths will go a long way in making our state’s comeback a reality.