Putting Sports in Perspective

Commissioner Hanksmall

Commissioner Hank

I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl realizing I had to deal with a real crisis.

The new, probably large, house going up in my neighborhood which I wrote about earlier? No, I was just a bit saddened when more than 60 years of history disappeared in under 45 minutes, leaving only an empty lot where once a house had stood, but I had written about the inevitability of change and here it was happening right in front of me.

The fact that Tom Terrific had not been able to lead the Patriots to another NFL championship? Really, I am over that and am already looking forward to next season.

This was a real crisis because when the Super Bowl ran long because of the power outage (obviously they should have had a muni supplying electricity to the stadium), I lost any chance to see Downton Abbey that night. Sure, I could talk with the best of them around the water cooler about the football game, but not only was I going to be lost when the subject of Downton Abbey came up, it was very likely that before I could find another way to see the episode, most of the secrets would have been revealed. Did Bates get out of jail? Would Ethel manage to prepare lunch without embarrassing her employer or herself? Would Lady Mary stop being irritating and actually do something productive besides looking gorgeous and wearing clothes really well?

Of course, like many Lexingtonians, I am interested in sports, especially youth sports. The day before the Super Bowl I had spent five hours being the Commissioner of LBYH In-House Hockey, an 11-team, 187 player, inclusive league for kids between the ages of 5 and 11. Everybody gets equal playing time and coaches are evaluated mostly on how well they can bond with players and parents rather than their won-lost record.

I followed that with a short nap and then headed off for four hours of announcing at the LHS varsity hockey games. “Good evening hockey fans …” I once figured that I sit through something like 140 hockey games each year.

Of course there is baseball in the spring and summer, but here I stick with T-Ball age players. In fact, I spend most of my time with Pre-Ball which is for players between the ages of 4 and 6. And let’s not forget football in the fall.

So with all of that, I must be nuts about sports, right? Well, sort of, but not in the way you might expect.

Sports does touch kids’ lives and it can teach valuable lessons. But all too often I see things I would rather not see. Coaches who act out. Parents screaming about just about everything.

I forget who won and who lost almost as soon as the game is over. What I remember are the good plays, the flashes of brilliance, the displays of sportsmanship. The player who scores the first goal ever. My son slept with his trophy for weeks after he scored his first. A tiny goalie realizing that the pucks do not hurt because of all the padding and that she can stop them. Matt in his wheelchair propelling himself around the bases will be with me always. I wake up sometimes thinking “What if I had been so stupid that I denied Matt his chance just because he was in a wheelchair?” And then I remember that it all came out all right and I smile.

A few seasons ago, the LHS varsity hockey coach pulled up to the varsity for the last game of the season, a player who had spent his high school career on the junior varsity. The player would get to be a varsity hockey player even if only for one game. Then his teammates combined to feed him the puck so that he could score his first varsity goal.

I have no memory of how many games the team won that year. But that bit of magic told me all I needed to know about the coach and the team. They were all superstars as far as I was concerned.

The funny thing is that the kids care mostly about playing rather than about the score. Years ago a team I coached won a hockey tournament. The coaches were feeling pretty good about themselves. Obviously we were just about the best human beings around. Then I felt a tug on the hem of my jacket and looked down to find a tiny third liner with tears in her eyes. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Do we have to stop playing hockey now? she demanded.” That little third liner didn’t care about the trophy in her hand. She didn’t understand won or lost. What she cared about was playing the game and now the season was over.

The fact is that no matter how good a Lexington player is, there is a nearly 100% chance that they will make a living doing something besides playing professional sports. So take it easy, enjoy the game, forget the mistakes and the bad games, and remember the good times.

Years ago I was the starting pitcher in a baseball game. We were mercy-ruled after the other team scored 21 runs in a single inning. While it was true I had struck out nobody, neither had I walked anybody nor had I made any errors or thrown a wild pitch. Even better I had made no fielding errors and my ERA was still zero because there had been no hits. All runs were scored on errors. And it was only the first inning.

The funny thing is that while I have played on some good teams over the years, that is the team I remember best. I still see the guys I played with. And we are still kidding each other about just how awful we were that day and just about every other day.

So most of my job has become figuring out how to let kids just play the game. I want everybody to have a chance to play the game, no matter what game it is, and I hope all of us can join in to make that happen. Not just with sports, either.

 

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Riding the Big Yellow Bus

Hank and Chuck

By Hank Manz

I am getting used to the fact that much of the world views me as an Old Guy.

All the signs are there. Kids I know mostly call me “Hank,” but young women—and at my age that means they are under 45—almost always call me “Sir.” The clerk at Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t even look twice before giving me the senior discount. And the Lexpress bus driver doesn’t start the bus until I have taken my seat.

So it was interesting to return to my childhood a few days ago when Judy Crocker, long an advocate for getting school kids out of cars and off to school by bus, bike, and foot, arranged for me to make a morning school bus run. There I was at 7 AM, along with fellow Selectman Norman Cohen and School Committee Member Jessie Steigerwald, outside Lexington High School, waiting for Chuck Trombly who drives bus #7 for C&W Transportation.

Right off the bat I was impressed with the reaction of a bus driver when Jessie asked him which bus he was. He immediately said that he could not take any riders. That’s good. The drivers are trained in security.

But then the #7 showed up and I waved goodbye to the other two and met Chuck who was finishing his first of three runs for the morning. I took a seat up front, once again reminded that while I am taller than average, I would have trouble seeing over the padded seat backs which are built high for safety in the event of a crash.

The high school run was over, but the second run of the day was for Diamond Middle School. This may surprise a few parents, but the kids were mostly quiet and when they got off the bus many thanked Chuck. They knew his name, but even better, he knew theirs and he also knew the names of many of the parents.

I had prepared for this trip by watching 16 Candles, the movie which was the breakout for Molly Ringwald. The one where she climbs on the school bus with a friend, looks at all the riders acting out, then turns to her friend and says “I just loathe the bus.” Someone has posted a video clip of that scene on YouTube which you can see at:

I found that the school bus in Lexington is nothing like that. The kids were mildly interested in why someone my age was riding the bus. Several of them greeted me by name. If I recognized them, then I probably knew them from Boy Scouts or baseball. If I didn’t, then it was probably hockey where I don’t recognize anybody unless they have on a helmet.

Shower shoes as school footwear are still in style even with winter approaching as are T-shirts with questionable slogans on them. Backpacks look incredibly heavy. One of my Scouts told me that he carries a backpack that weighs one third of what he weighs.

They chattered away about all sorts of things but only had to be reminded to use their “indoor voices” a couple of times by Chuck.

We were on time to Diamond and then immediately started a Fiske run. The riders were a little louder, but once again Chuck knew their names and the names of the adults waiting with the kids at each stop. There was one tough moment when it turned out that a cul-de-sac was almost completely blocked with construction material, but Chuck managed to get the bus turned around in a space that looked small for the Mini I drive. I was impressed.

We were a few minutes late pulling into Fiske, but with the street blockage and the traffic I wasn’t surprised.

But that wasn’t the end because now it was bus evacuation drill day back at Diamond. Once there the bus was the scene of several simulated accidents. After a short talk about safety systems and means of egress from a crashed bus, the students opened the back door and practiced getting out quickly.

Sounds like an enjoyable morning, right? As it turned out, inside the bus everything was great. Chuck not only knew his route, but he knew the people on his route. He knew which kids were going to be late out the door. He checked the bus for lost items and possible sleeping students after we unloaded at each school. He had obviously made friends with his passengers so they paid attention when he spoke.

Outside the bus was another story. Some parents were late getting their kids to the bus stop and were not shy about keeping the bus waiting. Automobile driver were reluctant to let the bus into traffic. Car drivers resented stopped school buses and thought nothing of beeping and yelling and making that hand sign which could mean “You’re number one” but which I think means something else. The glut of automobiles near each school slowed traffic and made it hard to get to the bus lanes.

There was the National Grid truck whose driver, talking on a cell phone, almost drove past the bus, but stopped. He was well into the danger zone, but at least he stopped, something I cannot say about other drivers.

While the automobile traffic at each school wasn’t a complete showstopper, it was clear that we are at, or at least close to, a point at which something will have to be done to move personal vehicles out of the way so that buses can do their job efficiently. Moreover, there were some almost heartstopping moments when parents let students out of a car so they could run across traffic to get to the school.

There were volunteers and school staff helping at each school to move things along and they were not only working hard, but were working effectively. They, too, obviously knew the students.

I made a mental note to come back on a rainy day to see how many more cars would be added to the queue.

The bottom line is that if you are a parent wondering how safe the bus is, I found it less stressful than my rides on the T. The drivers are skilled, the buses are in good shape, the ride is smooth, and I can’t say enough about the atmosphere on the bus. My bus ride was nothing like the rides I remember from my youth to which I can only say Thank You! But I hope that more students will start to ride the bus and I fervently hope that parents who do drive, will exercise caution when letting their kids out of the car. What I saw outside the bus was, frankly, too often a bit scary.

 

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A Personal Connection ~ Making Town Government Work

By Hank Manz  |  About the time I am getting exasperated with Town government, something always happens to restore my faith in it. This Town Meeting season it has been Articles 17, School Bus Transportation Subsidy, and 16(e), White House Stabilization.

The articles worked out differently, it is true, but both were characterized at some point as failures of major boards to lead adequately. The need for Article 17 was laid at the feet of the School Committee while the way Article 16(e) played out was thought to be a failure on the part of the Board of Selectmen.

But that is the magic of Town government. Sometimes things end up exactly as they should.

Transportation of students to schools in private vehicles is out of hand by most accounts. I live in the middle of an elementary school traffic pattern so I know that the increase in school-based traffic is more than just a rumor.

The planning process for the new Estabrook School brought traffic into sharp focus when it was realized that to handle traffic queuing on site might require more than 1,400 feet of roadway. This could lead to widening of access roads, increases in impervious surface, reduction of play space, and other changes, all to handle a twice-a-day problem.

At its core, this was not a school issue. This was a community issue. The schools and the School Committee had an important role and that was to not throw up any roadblocks to a better plan, but making this a purely school issue meant an almost impossible task of assigning priorities.

Can I reasonably expect the School Committee to be able to say that returning foreign language to the elementary schools ranks below a car-related issue? They already have a daunting number of priorities to try to balance. Making them completely responsible for changing the culture surrounding student transportation was, I thought, asking a bit much.

The Selectmen were in the same bind with the White House. Everyone agreed it was an eyesore. But too many conflicting priorities, too little money, too many competing interests, too many projects already in the works, a 300th anniversary coming up, and a citizenry already paying out a goodly share of their income in taxes made it hard for the selectmen to do anything else except what they did which was to vote to indefinitely postpone the article which meant it would remain an eyesore for at least another year. Oh, there had been a suggestion to simply raze the structure or to move it off site, but for many reasons those were never going to fly, at least in my lifetime.

The solution for school transportation—somehow get more students to ride the bus—came from a citizen article proposed by Judy Crocker and backed by various groups like Safe Routes to Schools. Judy has been a leader in the effort to get kids to walk and ride the bus for years. With a survey in hand which indicated that lower bus fees would increase ridership, Article 17 proposed a way to lower those fees. The very much misunderstood funding piece took awhile to grasp, but finally just about everybody realized that we were risking a relatively small amount of money and the money needed would actually decrease if more students rode the bus.

Moreover, a tie to Lexpress could be created which would allow students to take the school bus in the morning and Lexpress in the afternoon. Credit that one to a forward-thinking Town Transportation Coordinator, the Transportation Advisory Committee, and a Board of Selectmen who listened and acted.

The solution for the White House emerged as an amendment to the attempt to indefinitely postpone the article. That would have meant no funding for the external stabilization of the building, but the Capital Expenditures Committee disagreed and proposed going ahead with the work against the wishes of the Selectmen. Both the amendment and the article passed with votes to spare so by this time next year, I will not have to wince every time I go to the Farmers Market or walk to the Senior Center.

For both school transportation and making the White House less of an eyesore, the public, acting through Town Meeting, accepted both problems as community problems and took the steps necessary to address them.

The underlying plans supporting both articles were not seat-of-the-pants efforts. Both were backed by extensive preparation and well thought out plans. Moreover, in both cases we now know there is an acceptance of broad responsibility for the article. Instead of one board standing up to push for passage of an article, in both cases a much larger group has said that they will help make things happen. With anything you do in Town government you hope that is the case, but it is gratifying to see a demonstration of that fact.

I understand that you may not agree with the solution in either case, but it is the process I am interested in. Boards have responsibilities which can get in the way of solutions so every now and then outside help is needed. I was impressed this year that in an orderly and, dare I say it, collegial, way that outside help weighed in and was heard. The funny thing is that this has actually increased my appreciation for the problems boards must deal with and how important demonstrations of acceptance of responsibility are.

Boards still have to do most of the heavy lifting they were elected to do, but it is nice to know that there really are checks and balances in place and sometimes they even work.

 

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A Personal Connection ~ The More Things Change…

Hank at Work

By Hank Manz  |  It has been a bit cold lately, but even with that I decided to head down to Ranc’s for some ice cream. I am a vanilla person most of the time, but about a year ago my horizons were enlarged when Joe handed me one of his new concoctions. With that memory in mind, this time I decided to go absolutely wild with the pineapple ice cream. First rate!

But then I realized that the whole frozen dessert thing seemed to be getting out of hand in Lexington. In the Center alone there is Candy Castle, Ranc’s, and Baskin-Robbins, along with the just-opened Fruitee Yogurt which has been, by the way, packed every time I have walked by. And if that is not enough, I note there appears to be another yogurt shop going in near Great Harvest.

When I bike through East Lexington, all too often I stop at Macaron Sweeterie. The pastries and frozen treats are one lure, but the benches on the sidewalk are another very important benefit. Enjoying yourself while scarfing down sweets is one thing, but doing so while waving to friends and neighbors is even better. If only there were benches on the south side of Mass Ave in the Center, I would spend even more time there. I remain convinced we could put

in benches there even though others tell me they would never fit. I seem to remember that argument was once applied to bicycle racks on that side, yet today they are there..

Whenever I see a mini-explosion of businesses, I always wonder why banks attract such enmity. Things have died down of late, but with Town Meeting in session the discussion is bound to start anew. I have always held that if your bank is in the Center, then there are enough banks, but if it isn’t, then either you don’t shop downtown or you think the downtown needs at least one more bank.

I chose my bank partly because the branch manager was known to me through her volunteer service and partly because it was in the Center, specifically near Depot Square where I can often be found waiting for a bus. Just in case I do drive, there are usually parking places nearby. The perfect storm of bank availability!

“But a bank is not a destination” one person protested in a hot note to me. Well, it is for me. I can visit my “wealth”, decide if I can afford to withdraw $20 of it, read the Wall Street Journal, say “Hi” to the staff, have a cup of tea, and check out the bulletin board. A bank down the street has pointed out that they have all of that plus a fireplace. Had the winter been colder, I might have cracked. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I have to admit that the first draft of this column was written with a pen from a bank where I have no money on deposit. They have a big bucket of them at the customer desk and every now and then I snag one as I pass through.

I have always been something of a non-interventionist where business is concerned. If there are too many of one kind of business, then there will be a shakeout. I know—there are some who swear that certain businesses can afford to pay more so they are favored, but in talking to property managers, that still seems to be a theory with not much to back it up. Some businesses do require less in the way of parking, of course, and therefore can more easily move into a vacant location, but that is a discussion for another day.

The too-many-businesses controversy isn’t a new one, by the way. While reading old Town Reports, I came across the tip of an iceberg which started to melt more than 80 years ago. Apparently Lexington was gentrifying a bit so piggeries came under fire. Suddenly the selectmen were hearing cases involving illegal piggeries and illegal slaughtering.

Things seemed to quiet down, but apparently the lack of piggeries meant that there was no longer enough manure available for the many farms in the area. So farmers would haul produce to market, then bring back manure on the return trip.

That caused two things to happen. First, the good citizens of Arlington protested the presence of leaking wagons on their streets. I still have it on my list to read some of the Arlington Town Reports from that time to get their side of an obviously smelly story. Then, the presence of manure stockpiles in Lexington started to be a problem. I have yet to find a picture, but apparently the stockpile near North Station, close to the present Public Services Building, was pretty much the olfactory wonder of the world. All this was sort of solved as the farms died out, but I have yet to figure out whether those farms jumped or were pushed. Probably a little of both.

The circle has started to close with the designation of the greater portion of the former Busa property as a community farm so it is going to be very interesting to see what changes that will bring. Years ago when Wendy and I lived in Nebraska, most of our large backyard was a garden. Our neighbor, a retired farmer used to shake his head and say things like “Don’t understand why you folks are messing around with this kind of thankless work” but then he would offer sound advice like “Plant the early corn so it catches the reflected sun from the garage and then the stalks will protect other things from the really hot sun which will come later” and “Don’t let the squirrels have any of the fall leftovers or they will start on your garden early next year.”

We followed most of the advice, but the squirrels were cute so we let them have the leftover sunflowers. Sure enough, the next year they were fighting us for control of the garden. Typical struggle. New people move in with new ideas only to be replaced by even newer people who have to learn things all over. I suspect that will never change.

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A Personal Connection-The Economic Impact of a Light Winter

Hank Manz

By Hank Manz  |  Shortly after I was elected as a selectman in Lexington, my outlook on snow began to change.   No longer was it that attractive blanket which made the town look like a Norman Rockwell painting and which, thankfully, covered the leaves I hadn’t raked in the fall.  Snow costs money.  Not only must the town pay overtime for DPW workers, but they must also contract with private plowers to augment town equipment and personnel.  The town must pay for salt and sand and then, after the salt and sand has eaten away and abraded the road surface, the town must pay again for early maintenance.  Plowing sometimes rips up curbing and tears out patches in the road.  More money for repairs.  When budget time comes around as it inevitably does, then the realization hits that, once again, taxes are going to go up if we wish to maintain services.

Fall came and went this year without much in the way of brilliant colors and also without much bad weather except for a hurricane and a winter storm which cost us some trees, but did little in the way of damage to buildings.  I stopped in at Ranc’s for some ice cream on one of the few cold days in January and found Joe less than enthusiastic about the temporarily freezing weather. For the most part, however, the weather has been mild.  At home, with a new, more efficient, heating system installed last summer, we have been much more comfortable, both physically and fiscally than we were last winter. Even with the price of oil up, consumption is far below that of last year—a combination of a better boiler and better weather. The woodpile which feeds our woodstove is getting a bit low so I will have to split some more wood soon. This is a lot easier job that usual given the lack of snow. I suspect that Curt, an owner of a local insurance company, is happier because with no snow and ice, the claims rate has not yet taken the usual seasonal jump. The weather is so warm that the family cat has not had to take up his winter place under the woodstove where I am sure he passes the time wondering why humans insist on making it cold and wet outside. If I spoke Cat, I would probably find out that what he is saying when snow is falling is “Do I have to draw you doltish humans a diagram?”

So it was with a light heart that I broached the topic of no snow with Susan who was until recently the manager of the local branch of Brookline Bank. That led to an extended conversation while she filled me in on the other side of the coin.  No snow means no plowing which is how the private plowers, most of them landscapers or contractors in the building trades, pay for the trucks they use all year round.  No cold weather means fewer oil deliveries which has a heavy impact on oil dealers because they have contracted to buy a minimum number of gallons of fuel from the distributors and now they might not be able to meet those minimums so they could be in trouble.  No cold weather means that even if the local shoe stores avoid getting stuck with a huge inventory of boots which will be out of style by next year, there is a good chance that somebody will lose money on that inventory somewhere.  Of course no snow means that people like me will make their boots last another year even though the pair I wear most often has several hot-glue patches on them. No snow means many local stores are carrying large inventories of shovels, scrapers, sand, salt, and windshield washer fluid.  They should have sold at least half of the stock by now, but now they may be stuck twice—they are paying for storage and eventually they may have to fire sale the leftovers. Susan had at least two dozen examples and I could think of even more as we talked.  It means, for instance, that I might have trouble getting donations for the youth hockey league I help run because local businesses are the main source of those donations.

This was an amazing revelation—snow is an economic engine for the economy of the small town in which I live.  Could it be that the half a million dollars or more the town spends in most years for removal is nothing compared to the economic boost it gives many of the citizens who pay for that removal with their tax dollars? Then they, in turn, can afford to pay their taxes which helps keep the town solvent.

Bursting with my new-found knowledge, I started the task of convincing the citizenry by talking to my spouse.  She wasn’t buying it, even after I pointed out that her own windshield scraper, broken last winter, has not had to be replaced.  Sad to say, only a very small number immediately bought my explanation, including guys like Mike who runs a landscaping business and plows in the winter.  Fortunately, with the Super Bowl over, a weekend snowstorm may excite more interest in plowing than it would have just a few weeks ago.

But I still believe in the economic engine theory and should it snow, I will be sad that the town’s financial problems will be worse in the short term, but glad that Dick will sell some boots, that Mike might get some plowing time in, and that Lexington Ace Hardware will sell at least a few shovels.  To prepare for what must surely come, I will buy my wife a new windshield brush and scraper for her car, but while I am on that errand, I will stop at Joe’s for an ice cream sundae and I will drive very carefully so Curt will not suffer. You know—my boots are looking a bit the worse for wear so just maybe I will be paying a visit to Michelson’s very soon. It has to snow eventually, right? But please, not in April …

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