The guy at the top of the Mariners' dugout was relaying hand signals like he was directing jets down a busy airport tarmac. When the outfielders didn't respond exactly to his liking, the coach, Andy Van Slyke, dog-whistled a piercing blast. The center fielder, a likable, fast, skinny kid named James Jones, finally took a few steps back.
There. That's where I want you, Van Slyke indicated with his big paw, then set about re-positioning shortstop, Brad Miller, to take a step closer to second base.
The Seattle Mariners may be coached by Lloyd McClendon -- a calm, no-nonsense professional who deserves credit for ably exceeding the low expectations of the Mariners fan base -- but Van Slyke is the animated field general you see inning-by-inning helping to coax the best angle on every play on a team no one thought would be able to hang around at .500 -- or better. Watching Van Slyke orchestrate the Mariners' alignment on defense, or coach first base on offense, and throw candy into the crowd behind the dugout between innings, I found myself oddly reconnecting to a sport that had, for some years, lost its intimacy, its vibrancy, a reason to really care.
As a former sports writer, I had long grown disenchanted with the over-bearing, bloated and blaring world of professional sports. The stadium subsidies at taxpayer expense; the use and regulation of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs; the bandboxes built for home runs ... for a while, baseball seemed like an endless loop of Alex Rodriguez bloopers playing on a Jumbotron over a Diamondbacks stadium swimming pool filled with 9.75 bottles of Lite beer. I never found Albert Pujols very charming, nor had any sense why Mike Trout was worthy of my undying respect, even though I know he's got the coveted five tools, or at least four.
It had been years since I had any bandwidth to devote to watching Major League Baseball, or any pro league, for that matter. Given the dollars and lack of sense that accompanies the economics and out-sized role sports can play in a world gone mad, it was indulgent, I thought, to "waste" time quibbling over trades, batting averages or whether by spending $240 million for Robinson Cano, the Mariners were copping to paying too much for a marquee player when, in fact, they needed to build out a farm system and allocate resources for a more balanced team.
Now, though, after really realizing that "my guys" were in charge of teams like the Mariners, I figure who the hell cares?
Part of that change of heart comes from seeing Van Slyke, the Gold Glove outfielder from the Pittsburgh Pirates, installed in the Mariners coaching squad alongside the likes of former Mets third baseman Howard Johnson. These guys are my age, or thereabouts, and have caused a new rise of sports sentimentalism in me based almost entirely on the premise that since we have already gone through the 1980s and 90s together, it's like old-home week to see these familiar faces -- or names -- populating the sidelines as coaches. So we ought to go through the first part of the 21st century together, too. It's why the loss of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn to cancer today was such a blow. Who was a better ambassador? Who better to teach the players at San Diego State?
I know they're not playing the games, and I know that no matter how great Van Slyke was, there is very little he is going to be able to do to get Brad Miller's batting average to get up over .200. Still, the presence of these MLB stars and stalwarts now in charge of a new generation of players does help breed a level of comfort, of familiarity, of relationship to an organization that has failed to give a whiff of deep baseball competency since the departure of manager Lou Piniella and general manager Pat Gillick.
Likewise, it's not a bad indication of my willingness to accept my own advancing age to feel more warmly towards the team, simply because the coaches were great players that I spent so much time watching back before I fell out of step with the game.
I don't know if I would be as eager to see the Mariners play if they weren't being guided by ballplayers who I considered to be some of my personal favorites. HoJo was part of the Mets' 1986 World Series winning team. Van Slyke was one of the most consistently outstanding outfielders to ever play when he was with the Pirates. Even when he beat the Mets with a throw or a hit, there was respect for a player with that much skill, that much passion and drive.
To me, the Mariners have unwittingly given a generation of middle aged baseball fans reasons to cheer. I'm happy the team is hanging around in the American League West. I'm more happy to see some key players from my generation are out there, gesticulating and whistling, showing the kids how it's done.
Why did the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey pay $235 million for Bayonne marshland? According to new reporting from The New York Times, the purchase was a direct bailout of the financially teetering New Jersey city -- a move aimed to keep Gov. Chris Christie from having to flood state money to Bayonne to keep it from Chapter 9 or some other untenable state of de facto bankruptcy.
It was a financial move of quasi-legal proportion. But it was also political: For Republican governor with ambitions of being the president of the United States, any clandestine deal done to ward off the need for tax dollars was a way to prop up the facade of fiscal conservatism. But how conservative is it to rob Peter to pay Paul?
The answer, of course, is that it has nothing to do with conservatism, or financial prudence, or good government. It has everything to do with the standardized abuse of public entities and authorities by politicians and their banker/bondsman masters. The shell game keeps them in power, and in the money, while the America we know is drained of its very lifeblood, one municipality at a time.
I don't see America anymore as a series of independent towns and cities whose existence weaves the complex fabric of this large and varied country. What I see are ATM machines for the rich and powerful to use at their discretion, to feed their political and financial appetites and proclivities.
This is not to paper over the vast complexities in running cities and states and providing services for people. What is troubling is that instead of confronting these complexities and speaking honestly to citizens about the real problems and the real costs, the political and banking classes have colluded to profit in the face of problems that will, indeed, bankrupt us. Anything to maintain power, and keep their hands in the cookie jars, even if Rome burns, or pension funds fail. This is where our democracy is faltering: At the place where money and power collide and the real, hard work of regenerating wealth and enhancing infrastructure/services is left undone.
In this way, what started as the shocking story about the closure of George Washington Bridge lanes in Fort Lee in September 2013 has, thankfully, morphed into a somewhat systematic investigation of every weird deal done under Chris Christie and his very good pals at the Port Authority.
The Port Authority isn't just Christie's Sugar Daddy, it has been the absolute cauldron of cash and lever-pulling that guaranteed Christie's ability to pull off big fixes that could, left undone, complicated his narrative. At least that's what the NYTimes reporting so far is indicating.
A takeover could have forced the state to pour millions into Bayonne to stabilize it. That would have been problematic for Mr. Christie, who was confronting a huge deficit in New Jersey’s budget, while trying to keep a campaign promise to not raise taxes. The Port Authority’s purchase of the land, orchestrated by Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the agency at the time, spared Mr. Christie from having to confront this dilemma. The agency wound up spending far more for the land than an independent appraisal showed it was worth.
In this way, there is very little difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to abusing public financing in order to hide problems, or, worse, dole out cash to the banker/political class, all while expecting taxpayers and property owners to suffer the consequences of their corruption and abuses.
In Harrisburg, a third-class city that merely serves as the capital of Pennsylvania, Democrats and Republican "leaders" in both the Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett administrations performed surreal feats of legal backflips and bullying to keep Harrisburg from filing Chapter 9 protection in the face of overwhelming debt. In addition to the fraudulent bonds floated for a magical-thinking incinerator retrofit, the city is home to loads of other debt, including the school district. By some estimates, the city of 50,000 mostly poor, African-American residents were fleeced to the tune of $1 billion in debt. The state takeover via Act 47 was so nebulous that it led to the dismissal of several state-appointed officials who dared tell the power brokers that Harrisburg had been abused and needed a cram down of bondholders to make any deal work.
In keeping with the new spirit of questioning how some people continue to work out good deals for the banking/political classes while saddling the rest of the population with unimaginable debt, I can't help but wonder how, in the midst of Harrisburg's forced receivership and recovery plan, how did the Commonwealth decide to pay $100 million for an office building whose debt had already been defaulted on? How did the Commonwealth decided to buy Forum Place for 100 cents on the dollar when, for years, the bonds had been floating in the market for as little as 42 cents on the dollar?
Here is a city sinking into the Susquehanna River -- a virtual Athens, Greece of overwhelming debt and government corruption -- that was forced by the state to accept total responsibility for debt it can not afford to pay, yet in the middle of this Act 47 forced recovery plan, the state still finds a way to pay $100 million for a Forum Place building it could have bought for $42 million, or, maybe $60 million.
Somehow, the players involved in transferring that debt to the state through the building sale were powerful enough to pull off a deal in which everyone was made whole. Here is the bond deal for Forum Place, with an opinion written by Rhoads & Sinon, a Harrisburg law firm that was a key player in determining whether the Harrisburg Authority needed a performance bond for the contractor who undertook the incinerator refit. The lack of a performance bond is a key issue into how and why financing was approved for a construction deal that was ill-fated from the start, thus saddling the city with $300 million in debt.
Somehow, as the city of Harrisburg was prevented from a legal process that entitled the city to seek a cram down of the fraudulent debt, the same state officials who prevented Harrisburg from a more fair recovery plan turned around and orchestrated a building sale for almost twice as much as the bond market had been seeking.
According to a Bloomberg News, the bonds had been trading for as low as 25 cents on the dollar in 2004, which means that Forum Place could have been purchased for $25 million 10 years ago.
The Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (26718MF) plans to sell $106.4 million in bonds to buy a Harrisburg (9661MF) office building connected to bonds in default.
While the sexy story of Chris Christie's "BridgeGate" has given way to a much slower, less thrilling dig into the patterns of abuse by New Jersey and the Port Authority, Christie's implosion remains a very important turning point in American politics. Or, at least it should.
The financial trouble of underfunded pensions and criminal abuses of our economic systems are many, from the tranches and derivatives and selling off of American assets that have allowed a massive transfer of wealth. But no wide-scale recovery can take place until more people understand the way in which the system is not just rigged, but completely bankrupt.
The corruption is widespread. It is systemic. But when you start to look at every single deal, whether it's Bayonne marshland bought for $235 million, or along-embattled and defaulted Harrisburg office building sold for 100 cents on the dollar to the state of Pennsylvania, you get a pretty clear idea how these guys run these deals. They do it for power. They do it because they think they can get away with it. They do it for themselves.
For 72 Years, Kentucky Landowners at Camp Breckinridge Have Sought Justice From U.S. Government. Why Stop Now?
Every third Friday of every month in a courthouse room in Morganfield, KY., the Breckinridge Land Committee meets. The group, which at one point included 1,000 heirs named in a class action suit against the federal government, traces its origins back 72 years, when their family farms were taken from them.
Sometimes, only a few of the remaining land heirs show up. It’s getting harder and harder, since the original heirs are now in their 80s and 90s. At the March 2014 meeting, the committee secretary, Jeanne Cleveland, a third-generation heir and busy librarian in the Henderson County School District, forgot the courthouse keys, so the group found its way to a local restaurant and convened there instead while eating catfish fry and drinking coffee and pop.
“People say we’re wasting our time, but I don’t buy that,’’ said Ruby Higginson, 87, who reinvigorated the Breckinridge Land Committee effort in 1978, vowing to try and achieve justice for her father, who lost 800 acres to the U.S. government, and her brothers and cousins, who continued the legal fight – to no avail -- through the 1950s and 60s.
In 1942, in the months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 740 farm owners in three western Kentucky counties were told to get off their land. The U.S. government, seeking to build a training camp for World War II soldiers, moved to “buy” 36,000 acres, but really, it was no fair sale.
The landowners had little time to react.In some cases, they had less than 30 days to clear out, move farm equipment, find new homes, sell off the cows and horses, find other work, since they not only lost their land, they lost their jobs, their way of life.
It was a horror-movie come to life, an almost incomprehensible and life-altering disruption and sacrifice. But despite their bitterness, anger, disbelief, confusion and grief, what kind of patriotism would they be showing to stare down their government in a time of war? Besides, they were told that once the war was won, they could buy their farms.
They had a month to move off their land, for which they were paid about $86 an acre, with no real chance to negotiate, especially for the mineral rights that everyone knew were worth millions. Geological studies had long shown that in addition to being topped with some of the most fertile soil in the America, these 36,000 acres contained coal, gas and oil deposits that wound up producing millions and millions of dollars in profits for the likes of the Peabody Coal Company, which bought the mineral rights via the Tennessee Valley Authority. The story of how the land was surplussed, and how the farmers never had a chance to bid back for their farms, is the crux of a long, serpentine legal matter that stymied the land heirs for decades.
What was set in motion from the moment Pearl Harbor was attacked is an ongoing fight by the Camp Breckinridge Land Heirs who, for 72 years, have sought to be recognized – and compensated – for the theft of their land and mineral rights. At one miraculous point in 2006, a federal judge named Susan Braden sanely ruled that the heirs were due $32 million, but that did not stand up. The heirs have taken all the twists, all the turns, in stride, even as they continue to live in a world re-ordered by the taking of their land 72 years ago.
“He loved that farm,’’ Mildred Watson told me about how her father handled the government agents who came their farm in 1942. This was in 2007, when I called her to talk about her lifelong pursuit of justice on behalf of the farmers. At that time, the Braden ruling was being appealed.
Watson was sanguine enough to know that the ruling would likely not be the final word and was neither bitter nor joyous. After working decades to bring justice to her family’s, a steely resignation infused her sense of resolve, no different from the other heirs who have long been conditioned to stay the course, no matter how badly defeated or out of options they seem.
But Mildred Watson became another Breckinridge Land Committee heir to never see justice in her lifetime. She died in 2012, just at the Breckinridge Land Committee was “celebrating” its 70th year in operation.
But Watson’s testimony is not lost, nor is the memory of what her father lost.
“He used to say ‘I’ll never have to move. I own my own farm while I am here but this land is not my land, it’s God’s.’ That’s what he’d say. So it broke his heart when they came and told us we had to move. What they told us they did not put down on paper, that we had to move and they said one day we would have the chance to buy it back, but this just all broke his heart. I remember he walked to the backfield and he walked and walked the yard. His whole life went up in smoke.’’
They have met nearly continuously in the name of their people, and their land.
They have had a federal judge finally rule in 2006 that they were due $32 million in compensation, only to have an appeals court overturn the decision.
They have seen their Louisville and Washington D.C. law firms worked hundreds of pro bono hours to find some avenue for restitution.
They have seen former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor assigned the role of mediator in 2008, only to have the process fall apart.
Still, they say: If the federal government’s tactic is to wait until every lastone of the heir dies out, it’s not going to work. They will carry on. There are new generations that know what happened, how the government not only did not sell them back their land, but sold it off in big chunks while they separately sold off the gas, oil and coal rights.
Today, when these heirs drive through those rolling hills of Webster, Union and Henderson counties, see how their family farms are now riddled with oil derricks, natural gas wells and coal shafts: Energy supplies that have delivered hundreds of millions in profits for mine companies like Peabody Coal Company. No wonder they won’t give up.
Every third Friday, the stalwart group of land heirs holds its meeting. These people were all children or teenagers when the government agents came to nail notices on their front doors. Or, in the case of some of these survivors, they were U.S. Army soldiers, off fighting the war in France and Germany as their own families back in Kentucky were being forced to give up their treasured land.
“I came home and got off the bus and didn’t even know where to go,’’ said one man whose family had moved to a rental home in another town.
Today, as it has been for about 40 years, the Breckinridge Land Committee is chaired Higginson. For decades, Ruby has made the trip to Morganfield for the monthly meeting, even when she was living two hours away in Louisville. She now lives in a tidy townhouse in Evansville, IN., about an hour north, but still, every month, she calls the Louisville attorney’s office that performed millions of dollars in pro-bono work on behalf of the Breckinridge Land Heirs.
There hasn’t been anything to report since the 2009, when the U.S. Court of Claims ruled against the 1,000 heirs in the class action suit. Still, they meet. Every month Ruby asks the group’s lawyer for an update. The lawyers mail a letter, saying nothing new can be reported. Ruby reads the letter into the record. Someone votes and seconds the motion to enter the letter into the record. They mean business, even if they have no idea how justice will ever come.
The attorneys from Louisville write to say nothing is new
"There is no further appeal from this court," said Stephen Pitt, the Louisville attorney who represents the plaintiffs.
The only avenue now is an act of Congress, since the loss on appeal undermined the 206 ruling by Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden in Washington, D.C., who ruled that the land heirs were due $32 million. But even if Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell are sympathetic to the Breckinridge heirs, there is nothing about this Congress that would welcome taking up the 72-year case. Slipping a $32 million grant for the land heirs into any Congressional bill in the current state of Congress is too much to hope for.
Still, the land committee meets. Every third Friday of every month, they meet at the courthouse.
The work of gaining justice for the Camp Breckinridge landowners has fallen to a third generation. Jeanne Cleveland’s mother, her aunts and uncles are all in their 80s and 90s. She’s a busy librarian in the Henderson County school district, but finds herself unable to eschew the heavy burden of trying to find justice for her people.
On the 70th anniversary gathering of the Breckinridge Land Committee back in August 2012, Cleveland worked hard to commemorate the effort, along with taking over secretarial duties of the group that was performed by Mildred Watson, who passed away.
“These honest hardworking patriotic farmers, many of whose farms were passed down through generations, and sent their sons to fight in the war, never dreamed their beloved country, would cheat them of their heritage,’’ Cleveland wrote in to the Courier-Press in Evanston on the 70th anniversary of the Breckinridge Land Committee’s formation.
“They did what their government asked of them with the belief that they would return to farming their homesteads when the war was over.
“If the plan … is (as some have suggested) to ‘continue to stall until the surviving heirs who lived through the land seizure and relocation have died,’ then our government officials should rethink their plan.
“Their historical memories will live on. Generations of heirs are waiting to take up the fight for their ancestors. We will not die with these surviving heirs as they hope.
“The government took the land from the Native Americans and sent them to reservations. Japanese Americans moved to relocation centers have found reparation through the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act.
“Why were these Breckinridge Americans left to fend for themselves after doing everything within their power to help the country win the war?”
The question is unanswered by a government that, over the years, has had the means to overlook what it did. But the heirs of that land in Webster, Morgan and Henderson counties, they won’t forget. They continue to persevere in ways that are equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking.
“I’ve been saying this since 1978, when I started this part of the campaign on behalf of our land: When I die, they’re not going to bury me. Every third Friday of the month they’re going to wheel me into the meeting. They’re going to prop me up and my mouth will be working.’’
She laughs as she says this. She’s been saying this for so many years, it’s become a mantra. At this point, however, with the struggle to win recognition for the loss of her family farm, for the losses of all those 36,000 acres, Higginson can not be moved off what she knows is the truth. It makes the fight easy in that there is absolutely no chance she, or her fellow land heirs, are wrong.
“We’re not asking for a handout. We’re not asking for anything other than what was promised us. We were told we could buy our farms back for the price paid less damages. We were farmers and happy to be farmers. Money can not replace that.’’
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.