October 29, 2009


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The real frighteners

I’m not superstitious. I don’t spook easily. But I find there’s more and more to be really scared about, and I’m not talking about adults in bad costumes. Boomers in vampire costumes aren’t exactly terrifying, but definitely spooky.

No, the world is really pretty scary. Here are a few frightening things that keep me up at night:

Health care limbo – We are a country of 300 million. Most of us are educated. We produce something like 25 percent of all the world’s wealth. Yet we seem unable to fix a health care system that nearly everyone agrees is completely broken.

Why is this? Although our everyday lives have become more and more entangled with giant international corporations, a large number of health care witch doctors claim to be terrified of our government and say nationalized health care is a socialist plot.

In the meantime, more and more of us are not able to get basic medical care. That we can’t find a way to guarantee quality medical care to everyone in our nation is more than demoralizing and depressing. It suggests a level of social decline that projects a very scary view of the future. Seen “Running Man” recently?

Right-wing talk show hosts – The art and science of political thought is just about dead. Volume has replaced substance in the national debate and demagogues like Glenn Beck have become TV philosophers and national best-selling authors. They claim to be conservative commentators. There’s a lot of wide-open space in the term: “comment.” And these guys (and gals) have found a shockingly comfortable home in the lunatic fringe.

Beck and his ilk have done more than sow the seeds of fear. They’ve made political discourse in this country a food fight. But is fear the only thing behind this shift? Or is it something bigger?

You have to wonder if our populace, brains boiled beyond repair by Google searches and YouTube, has the ability to digest anything that takes more than 30 seconds to deliver. In the new era of hi-speed wi-fi and viral video, is there any time to think?

Endless war – Perhaps we’ve all become too distracted by the food fight over health care reform or the steady, irrepressible march of market capitalism – those Wall Street investment bankers are back in business while U.S. unemployment continues to climb – to notice that our “wars on terrorism” are not drawing to a close. In fact, it looks like we’ve solved little, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where militants continue to operate despite American military might.

The most frightening aspect to this is that there doesn’t appear to be a solution. Pull out and risk turning over the region to militants and extremists thirsty for the blood of Americans. Stay and you keep sending young men and women to a region full of militants and extremists thirsty for the blood of Americans.

If, like me you think about these things long enough, you’ll get the shivers. It’s hard to imagine we’re headed for anything that can end well. Still, we’ll all put on our smiles and enjoy the kids out trick-or-treating this Saturday. What else can you do?

Pete Mazzaccaro

Commentary: Democrats must support Panella for the Supreme Court

Ever heard of Jack Panella? He’s not a baseball manager – that’s Lou Piniella. He’s also no Barak Obama, but he may be just as important to you, maybe more so. If elected next month, he would become the deciding vote on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If that doesn’t get your attention, I suggest you think about your rights, or should I say the rights you used to have.

The Republicans in Pittsburgh are holding an election and hoping Philadelphians stay home. As a matter of fact they are betting on it. They always do.  Republican voters in Western Pennsylvania have been sneaking away with off-year election wins for decades. How so? They show up at the polls in much bigger numbers than complacent Philadelphia Democrats do.

No longer can we let our guard down in a one-election-on/one-election-off syncopation and hope for the best. It doesn’t work that way in Pennsylvania.

When it comes to partisan politics, there is no middle ground right now. We’ve elected Barak Obama, so protect it. Use it or lose it. The Republicans’ Supreme Court candidate, Judge Joan Orie Melvin, is a real-deal Rush Limbaugh conservative. But you won’t hear Mr. Big Mouth talking about the race.

This one is under the radar, hardly to be noticed.

Melvin is unabashed in her far-right judicial philosophy.

“I am a strict constructionist,” she is only too happy to tell voters. “I believe in judicial restraint. The job of a judge is interpreting the law – not creating it.”

The current 3-3 split between Republicans and Democrats on the court means whoever wins in November will get to cast a number of deciding votes. Melvin says her election would help ensure the advancement of conservative Republican values in Pennsylvania.

Melvin calls herself a social and fiscal conservative and a reformer.

“Because this seat will control the majority, there will be a difference whether a Republican or Democrat justice gets elected, ” she said straight out. She cites endorsements from the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the National Rifle Association that go back 23 years.

In the 1990s, legislative attempts at tort “reform,” especially those aimed at medical malpractice litigation, were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court which, Melvin said, “was Democratic at the time.” When the court changed sides in 2001, she said, rules were amended that helped mitigate the medical malpractice crisis. These included the elimination of venue shopping and a requirement that cases had to be certified up front that they were not frivolous in nature.

These are her words, and I haven’t even begun to explore other dark realities, like her views on reapportionment. Electing Judge Jack Panella, a Democrat, to the Supreme Court in this election cycle is of paramount importance.

Every decade, the legislative districts of the Commonwealth, House and Senate, are reapportioned. The Supreme Court plays an important role in the selection of the chair of the reapportionment commission. The election of Panella to the Supreme Court would ensure that Democratic principles, judicious temperament, and thoughtful deliberation will prevail during that selection. From reapportionment to labor issues that affect our work force, Melvin can’t be trusted.

Panella needs our votes badly. He recently was invited to a 9th Ward meeting held at the Chestnut Hill Hotel, and was asked if he can support women’s rights, especially regarding the question of choice. He delicately navigated answering the question, careful not to make an open judicial opinion that would disqualify him from hearing such cases in the future.

He answered in such a way as to more than satisfy the intense line of questioning coming from the very vocal committeewoman who happens also to be the local chapter president of the National Organization of Women. 

I think I can speak for the fiercely independent 9th Ward when I say that at endorsement time we felt comfortable with Panella’s qualifications, his temperament and his wisdom. He has received the highest recommendation from the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He is more than worth your trouble.

John O’Connell is the 9th Ward Democratic Leader.


Instant replay: A remedy for blown calls by umpires

For baseball fans, at least for those in Philadelphia, it’s easy to hate the Yankees. Easy and appropriate.

For baseball fans everywhere it’s easier still to hate the umpires. Easier and inappropriate.

The current blog and talk radio umpire gripe-a-thon is driven by several really bad calls made in the playoffs. While there may not be any crying in baseball, there sure is a lot of kvetching.

Here’s what happened:

In the Red Sox/LA Angels series, first-base umpire C.B. Bucknor made two egregious calls at first base in game 1.

In the Yankees/Twins series’ game 2, left field ump Phil Cuzzi called a ball that was fair – by at least a foot – foul. He was standing about 20 feet from where the ball landed.

In the Yankees/Angels American League Championship Series’ fourth game, Tim McClelland, at third base, made two bad calls. The first, ruling that a runner had left the bag early when he hadn’t. The other occurred when two players were at third at the same time (one caught in a rundown between third and home and the other coming from second). Both were tagged off the base. McClelland ruled one out and the other entitled to be at third.

These are all clearly blown calls (McClelland, universally regarded as one of the sport’s top two or three umpires, admitted it at a post-game news conference), not the bang/bang plays that the umps sometimes miss but generally get right, or disputed ball and strike calls.

These are plays that the use of instant replay would certainly help to clarify. The questions about that are “Should it be used?” and “How do you implement it?” More on that in a bit.

Professional sports officials have an extremely tough job. I don’t remember who it was –maybe Doug Harvey, possibly Al Barlick – but an umpire said many years ago that you have to be perfect on opening day and then improve as the season goes on.

Objectively, the evidence is that major league umps get a large percentage of their 250 or so calls a game right. How good are they? They probably get 95 percent or more of the calls on the bases right and miss, recent history notwithstanding, very few that are obvious.

Still, we want them to be perfect. It’s much easier for a fan to get angry at an ump when something goes wrong than to blame his hometown heroes or give credit to the hated rivals.

Now’s the time for that pesky “full disclosure” thing. Back when I was half my current age, I did some baseball umpiring. I learned two things: it’s very hard work and I wasn’t very good at it.

So what do we do, with all the technology we have today, to utilize replay – which most players I’ve heard quoted do not want – and still maintain the human element that has been part of the game for its entire history?

Baseball already uses replay to determine whether a home run ball is fair or foul or whether or not a fan interfered. That usage can and should be expanded.

Here’s the proposal: First, on all ball and strike calls and on all bang/bang plays, there would be no replay. The guy on the field would make the call and the players would live with it, just as they do now.

On plays, like the ones that caused controversy in the recent playoffs, here’s what needs to be done: Have a fifth umpire on each crew (a seventh in the playoffs) in the press box with access to all available TV feeds and replays.

When a play is questionable and the ump on the field or the guy in the booth thinks it appropriate, time is called and the replays are examined. As in the NFL and the NHL, a call would only be overturned if there were clear evidence that the call on the field was wrong. The booth ump in baseball should have the final say.

Players and managers could ask, as they do now, that the ump who called the play get help. If he refuses, an appeal could be made to the booth umpire.

Clearly the rules about what can and cannot be appealed must be clear and precise. This will be difficult, since an umpire’s bang/bang play might well be a player’s he-missed-it-by-a-mile play. Rule interpretations, boundary calls, some plays at the bases all should be included. As good as they already are, the umps can, and should, use replay to get even better.

And here’s a way to save the extra time many complain this will add to an already overlong game: When there is a review, go to a commercial, and make up that time with fewer minutes away after the next half inning.

As the World Series gets underway tonight, six of the best umpires in the world will be working: crew chiefs Gerry Davis, Dana DeMuth and Joe West along with Mike Everitt, Brian Gorman and Jeff Nelson. Among them, they have 119 years of service and have worked 12 World Series. They are all highly regarded.

Watch carefully. There may well be blown calls. It is hoped they will be few and far between. The huge percentage of the calls – at the plate, on the bases, down the lines – will, however, be accurate.

That won’t matter to the fans. They’d rather kvetch than eat. If the wrong team wins, they might even cry.

Play ball!





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