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 ~ Finding Time To Do Just A Few More Things

By Hank Manz  |

I am still recovering from a recent birthday.

Just about anybody even close to my age will tell you that birthdays become a love-hate sort of thing at this point and beyond. And when you hit those start/end-of-a-new-decade events—the ones where your current age ends in zero—one has to pause for a moment.

I have never advertised my birthday, but this is the age of instant media so of course there were all sorts of way people could figure it out.

Several people wrote on my Facebook Wall. Facebook is another one of those love-hate things with me. The fact that my Facebook avatar is a rat, albeit a cute rat, should give you some hint about my feelings on that score. Shortly after I set up my Facebook account, I realized that people I knew 30 years ago could now trade stories about me with people I met much more recently. That cannot be good in the long run.

On the plus side, the Internet has allowed me to re-connect with one of the three bright spots in an otherwise dim high school experience. Mrs. Blumberg, my junior year English teacher, is still teaching. Mrs. Blumberg introduced me to, among other things, Shakespeare, and she was the first to suggest that there was better poetry around than that scrawled on bathroom walls.

A couple of people, noting my age, felt I should do something special to mark the day. I took that advice.

The first thing I did was to cut what passes for a lawn at my house without being reminded and I trimmed the bushes which line the driveway, again with no reminder. And then I got rid of the moss and patched the bare spots before spreading some really nice wood chips from the Hartwell Ave. composting operation under the two apple trees in the front yard.

Then I cleaned up a bit so I could preside over my last meeting as the Chair of the Board of Selectmen. One last executive session and then Deb Mauger took over as the new Chair. I have become increasingly aware of just how much time is eaten up by the constant stream of things that seem small, but collectively add up to many hours a week. I know—this should not be news to many in a town where volunteerism is almost religion, but it helps to be reminded that nothing happens without the two key ingredients of time and work. I will simply say that after two years as the chair, I have a new appreciation for those who work at the many things which make Lexington the town it is.

I have gotten a jump on my mindless summer reading by checking out an e-book from Cary Library. In this Robert Parker mystery, the chair of the Board of Selectmen of a small Massachusetts town is involved in major criminal activity which includes murder, misuse of public money, and worst of all, intrusion on Conservation Land. With all of that she still has time for an affair with the Superintendent of Schools. Give me a break. The best way to make sure somebody has no extra time is to get them involved in some community work. Lex Farm. The Farmers Market. The Garden Club. The 300th Committee. The Community Center Task Force. The LHS Landscaping Committee. The Friends of Cary Library. Youth sports. Just about any committee including the one that was formed to figure out why we have so many committees interested in transportation. The list is pretty close to endless.

The really unbelievable part is that all of this activity in the Parker potboiler remains a secret for years. Fat chance, at least in Lexington. I once said that Good news travels at the speed of sound, but bad news travels at the speed of light. I thought it was original until I checked it out and found that there are several more well-known writers who have said much the same thing.

Mark Twain and Douglas Adams have both weighed in on the subject with quotes that are much cleverer than mine. But it was my son who said something which I saw as an incredible growth moment—If you don’t want people in Lexington to know you are doing something bad … then don’t do it.

Unfortunately, all too often the other side of that coin is not apparent to all. I mean sometimes we miss the many good things which are going on in Town. So as you walk around, take a moment to stop and talk to people. And don’t forget to talk to Town employees, many of whom live here and do a lot more than just their jobs. A few years ago when there was a water leak in my neighborhood, the DPW crew who responded let every kid on the block check out the backhoe they were using and then went up the street and bought out the lemonade stand two girls were running. Every time I pass that patch in the street I think of that day and my tax bill becomes a bit easier to look at.

Summer is fast approaching with concerts, the carnival, Blue Sox baseball, supper at a sidewalk table, and all the rest of it. There really is a lot to do in Lexington so this summer, with a bit more time on my hands, I am going to do some of them. But first I have to finish this column …


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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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