Monday, March 31, 2014

Managing Expectations

Last weekend I had the chance to take in a Red Sox spring training game at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida. It was the last game of the preseason and despite impending rain, the crowd was enthusiastic to see the team’s last warm up before Opening Day. Before the game I stood in a narrow hallway as the players crossed between the clubhouse and the dugout, many of them smiling and nodding as they walked past. Further down the passageway towards the field, fans of all ages hung over the railing hoping to get a glimpse of a favorite player and perhaps even an autograph.

“Do the Sox ever cut through that way?” I asked my new friend Jerry, a member of the security team. “Nope, never — but the other team walks through there and then once one of our minor league guys stood there and signed for an hour. He was having a ball.” I realized that this was the moment when expectations were highest — for the fans who would might never get this close to a player, for the minor league journeyman who would never again get nearer to the majors and even for the team itself. The team is nearly identical to the championship squad, there are few worrisome injuries to track (knocking on wood) and few pending contracts to worry about. Even with these stars aligned, the team can hardly plan to repeat the magic of 2013 because it was just that — magic. Managing the expectations of the fans, the players and the media for the upcoming season must be a daunting task for John Farrell and his staff.

While my jaunt to Florida kept me outside of Rhode Island’s borders during the election of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello last week, the magic of Twitter (and a reasonably patient family) gave me a front row seat to the action. Like John Farrell, Speaker Mattiello has to manage high expectations as he assumes his new leadership position in the House of Representatives. So far he’s been decisive – promptly replacing committee chairs and saying he would focus on “ jobs and the economy” — four magic words that Rhode Islanders are desperate to hear. Moderate Democrats did a happy dance watching the progressive wing of the party pick the losing side in the leadership battle and even some Republicans were pleased to see one of their own — Representative Doreen Costa — be awarded a vice chairmanship on the House Judiciary Committee. In the East Bay, the rise of Representative Raymond Gallison to chair of the House Finance Committee and Representative Jay Edwards as the new Majority Whip gives our regional issues a little more voice on Smith Hill.

With week one behind him, the honeymoon may be short-lived as the General Assembly has a load of work ahead and Speaker Mattiello has some thorny issues to wrap his arms around with just two months left to go in the session. He needs to decide whether the House will take up the pension reform settlement (if it is approved by the unions) and he will need to pass a budget through a chamber whose members were (at least initially) not unified in their support of him. And unlike John Farrell, his season is a short one and his success or failure will likely ride on the how the next few months play out. One thing is for certain, whether or not Speaker Mattiello can manage the high expectations that have been set — and the daunting challenges ahead — he won’t be slipping a shiny new World Series ring on his finger anytime soon, so relishing day-to-day wins and riding out the losses will have to suffice for now.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Can he make a comeback?

There’s no better storyline in baseball or politics than a compelling comeback. Whether it’s the “worst to first” Red Sox in 2013 or Buddy Cianci in 1992 (who “never stopped caring about Providence” even while incarcerated), fans and voters love an underdog and someone who has been down-and-out before clawing back to the top.

Down at JetBlue Park, Grady Sizemore, the former all-star centerfielder for the Cleveland Indians is hoping to be the comeback kid for the Red Sox this year. A phenom for his first four seasons in the majors, he hasn’t played a full season of baseball since 2009 — or a single game since 2011. I’m knocking on wood and crossing my fingers as I write this, but the Red Sox are cautiously optimistic that he could contribute to the team in a meaningful way this year.

Unwittingly, Clay Pell may have put himself in the underdog position in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. The odd rollout of his campaign with the never-ending “Clay is IN” web ads featuring Michelle n’ Clay (IN where?) and the incredible story about his car running away from home/ being stolen have definitely put him behind his two primary opponents in terms of appearing ready from day one. I won’t count him out yet — quirky sometimes wins (see current governor) and a big bank account can make that happen (again, see current governor), but the car story might tell a tale that inspires some voters to opt for another candidate.

I’ve done some dippy things with my car. Once I left a cup of coffee on the roof and drove down Hope Street wondering why people were gesticulating and giggling. I have a friend who briefly lost her car when she drove to work, walked home and then wondered where her car went. We laugh at ourselves and move on. But the story of the Pell Prius says a little more about the candidate than he might want voters to know.

In December when he first reported it had been stolen, he simply parked it somewhere and walked home, forgetting where he parked it. These things happen but his response lacked some basic common sense. He went out of his way to criticize the Providence Police for responding slowly saying he waited in the cold for two hours with the car once he found it. A regular Rhode Islander would be embarrassed for being dippy but grateful to have found the car unharmed. He would drive the car home, call the police and go down to the station to do the paperwork, not wanting to waste one more minute of patrol time.  He also would not publicly criticize a law enforcement officer for a slow response to such a non-emergency.

When Pell misplaced his car the second time, he left it unlocked with the keys inside. A Prius has a button start and so whoever borrowed the car simply opened the door and pressed a button. Knowingly leaving your keys in your car in an area where cars are frequently stolen is either na├»ve, dumb or too rich to care. But I am not sure that this is even an accurate picture of what occurred since he and Ms. Kwan spent a significant amount of time driving around looking for the car as if it were a lost cat. Perhaps they weren’t sure that it just hadn’t been misplaced again — or didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to be certain on which street they’d parked.  Either way, this episode illustrates a lack of gravitas. Rhode Island needs “West Wing” leadership, not reruns of “Laverne & Shirley.”

A Grady Sizemore comeback this year would confirm that Red Sox scouting and management continues to be incredibly adept at assessing talent and potential. A Clay Pell comeback might say just the opposite about Rhode Island voters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Getting out of our potholes

While elected officials have the ability to enact laws, institute policies and make regulations, sports stars and actors can make the media — and the masses — pay attention to the issues that they care about. As the debate over legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island has sparked up — primarily with the help of Governor Chafee’s “pot for potholes” interview — I was fascinated to read about a Houston Astros player, Jon Singleton, who talked about his addiction to marijuana and how it almost ruined his professional career. While Chafee waxed on about the amount of revenue marijuana could bring from users, Singleton gave a sobering interview about what the drug almost cost him.

We don’t need to hear from a long line of celebrities or read the many studies on the health impacts of marijuana to know that legalizing it is a bad idea. Let’s face it, smoking pot is not good for you and it never will be. I’m tired of hearing people say that marijuana is no worse than cigarettes or alcohol. No, marijuana is not heroin, but it’s not harmless either. Remember that “pothead” from high school? Where’s he now?  We have plenty of proof that pot is harmful and addictive and cracking open the Pandora’s box of regulating it and taxing it is shortsighted and irresponsible. Marijuana is an “entry level drug” that hampers one’s ability to think straight and can lead to more serious drug use. According to the NIH, 61% of persons under 15 entering rehab reported marijuana as their primary drug of abuse. What more do we need to know?

The truth is that we wouldn’t be having a conversation about legalizing marijuana if there weren’t many millions of dollars in tax revenue attached to the proposal. Governor Chafee and others looking to “regulate” marijuana are not interested in controlling the drug trade or acting in the best interests of public health, they simply want to add more money to the pile that they get to spend, leaving Rhode Islanders with less. The message to children is horrible: “Just say no to drugs, but Mommy should have a bong hit before breakfast because it will fund our roads and bridges.” It’s a sad day when we look to fill government coffers by selling drugs to our citizens.

While we don’t have a sports star like Singleton to make the case in Rhode Island, I am hopeful that former Congressman Patrick Kennedy will use his considerable clout to battle this unfortunate proposal. As an addict and someone who spent his fair share of time in rehab, his perspective and his passion will be valuable if clearer heads are to prevail.

Rhode Island has some serious problems. Our economy needs to grow, people need jobs and we need to make sure that all of our children have the best shot at a successful adulthood. Debating the relative harm of marijuana versus alcohol or analyzing the potential revenues that could be gleaned from this predatory proposal is a waste of time and misses the big picture. Let’s get our heads out of our potholes and get back to the issues at hand.