Travel

Nigeria

Nigeria is an enigma. It is the most populous African country and is rich in natural resources. It also harbors extreme poverty and violence. In some ways, it is two nations – the resource rich Christian south and the impoverished Muslim north.

I recently spent two weeks there in my capacity as a board member of Mercy Corps. The first week was in Abuja, the capital city, which is a rarity in Africa because it is a relatively new, planned city that doesn’t suffer from the traffic ills that plague its counterparts throughout the continent. I met with U.S. and Nigerian government officials, program staff and beneficiaries and got a sense of Mercy Corps work in the country (Nigeria is the second largest program in the Mercy Corps portfolio – after Syria).

The second week was spent mostly in Borno state in the northeast of the country, the center of the conflict with Boko Haram. I flew into Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and home to Mercy Corps regional office for the northeast. Over 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict in Borno and Mercy Corps’ programming is focused on providing food, shelter and livelihoods for those folks, mostly through cash distributions.

While in Maiduguri, I met with Nigerian government officials who have general oversight of all NGO’s in the area. I also met the Shehu of Borno, the head of the ancient dynasty that used to rule the area. Now, he leads what is something of a parallel government, namely the Muslim religion. He has great influence with, though not outright power over, the secular government and is a big fan of Mercy Corps work in the area.

Because of the ongoing conflict, and because the government controls only about 15% of Borno state, roads are impassible without military escort, which Mercy Corps does not use. So I flew on a UN helicopter to one of the “deep field” sites at Ngala, on the Cameroon border to look at the work first hand. The first impression was of the desolation caused by Boko Haram as seen in this picture of just one of hundreds of completely destroyed villages.

Ngala itself has been decimated by the conflict, with virtually every building showing signs of gunfire and others simply flattened.

So Mercy Corps has organized “sanitation brigades” to clean debris (mostly mud) from drainage ditches and use that mud to make bricks for reconstruction of the many destroyed buildings. The workers receive a small cash stipend for their work and can sell the bricks they make.

Another program provides cash to qualified folks to enable them to buy food. Mercy Corps did a market assessment before starting any cash programming, both to insure there would be no disruption of the markets and to measure the effect of the cash infusions. That research indicates that markets have flourished as a result. This woman was one recipient of a cash grant.

We met with a group of community leaders to get their response to the situation. While they listed unmet needs, they were pleased with the work Mercy Corps has done. Note that the two women in the group sat separately.

Despite the devastation, I found this small tree and the protective barrier around it symbolic of the hope people expressed about where things are headed.

Ngala is home to two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, one housing about 25,000 people, the other about 100,000. And now, many who were refugees (they crossed the border – mostly to Cameroon) are returning, so the needs are growing.

Besides a military base, the only real protection from Boko Haram the government has provided is a trench dug around the town (like many other towns – including Maiduguri – to make incursions more difficult. Unfortunately, the trench also limits residents’ access to their fields and other other resources.

This conflict in Borno is seen in the west as being based on religion. It is not. People there (even government officials) freely said the conflict began because of dissatisfaction with government – not providing basic services and being hugely corrupt. Mercy Corps own research bears out this observation. While religion does now play a role in the conflict, it was not the source of it.

So Nigeria should be a prosperous, conflict-free country. But until it reforms its top-down, corruption-endemic government, it will not achieve that goal.

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Eats, Uncategorized

Oregon State Beavers vs. Nevada Wolf Pack

After doing this now for a couple of years, it is about time I covered a college game. Actually, I did go to the Oregon-Oregon State game at PK Park in Eugene last year, but it was so cold and wet that all I wanted to do for the next week was stay in my warm bed to recover.

So, through the good fortune of my brother getting a couple of tickets from his friend Jerry, Tom and I ventured to Corvallis to see the (occasionally) number 1 ranked Beavers take on the Wolf Pack of Nevada. Their stock fell last week after they dropped a series to Utah (their first series loss in the PAC 12 after 14 consecutive wins).

The Beavers play at Goss Stadium , most recently renovated in 1999, the oldest continuous ballpark in the country. It is right in the heart of the OSU campus, a compact venue with a capacity of 3,248 (though they’ve occasionally packed more in) and not a bad seat in the house. Our seats were in the second row behind home plate – sweet!

One side note – like so many parks below the major leagues, Goss has a turf field (everything but the pitcher’s mound). As a result, far fewer baseballs are used during a game because there’s no dirt (well, not much) to sully them. The uniforms are clean through the game too since the only way to dirty them is for someone to lose his way from first to third and slide into the mound.

OSU has a storied baseball program, with two national championships to its credit. One of the OSU boosters took us to the trophy room before the game to look at those trophies and other memorabilia.

We were concerned about the weather, since the night before had been cold and wet and the forecast was similarly gloomy. It wasn’t that bad, though – last year’s Oregon-OSU game still ranks as my coldest, wettest baseball experience.

That previous OSU-Nevada game ended in the bottom of the 11th when the Wolf Pack’s center fielder, Cole Krzmarzick (10 letters, too few vowels), dropped a fly ball off the bat of Adley Rutschman (more about him later) allowing the winning run to score. So Nevada had a score to settle this night.

They started down revenge road in the 4th inning with three home runs, an impressive display of power that put them up 5-0. Tom and I were at the left field pavilion to get some food and got to see all three dingers clear the fence. (Speaking of food, all you need to know is major league prices and high school quality – $5 for a soda – really???) OSU’s bats were largely silent until the 6th, when they scored a couple. They added another in the 7th (should have been 2, but a perfect throw from left cut down the runner at the plate).

Then came the wacky 8th. With two out and no runs in, a walk, pinch single and a walk loaded the bases. Then two different Nevada relievers walked four straight batters to give the Beavers a 7-5 lead.

Coach Pat Casey brings in his ace, Luke Heimlich, to finish them off in the top of the 9th. This is curious because Heimlich is scheduled to start a very tough series against Arizona this weekend. And what does he do? Gives up two runs to blow the save and tie the game!

The Beavs don’t score the the bottom of the 9th, so we’re off to extra innings, just like the night before. Heimlich comes out again, but this time he holds Nevada scoreless in the top of the 10th.

OSU has the top of their order coming up, so there’s hope. Steven Kwan leads off with a not-very-good bunt (he’s famous for his bunts, but this one was handled easily by the pitcher). One down. Andy Armstrong, filling in for the injured Nick Madrigal, is hitting well, so there’s still hope. He pops up. Two down. Then comes Adley Rutschman, 3 for 3 on the night with a walk, so there’s (a little) hope.

Rutschman is the grandson of Hall of Fame Linfield College football coach Ad Rutschman and initially went to OSU as a football kicker. Baseball intervened and Adley had a very creditable year in 2017 as the regular catcher, when OSU went to the College World Series (though that didn’t go so well for the team).

This year, again as the regular catcher and occasional first baseman, Rutschman is hitting the cover off the ball (current average .426) and he’s a switch hitter. How high in the draft do you think a switch hitting catcher with that batting average will go?

Anyway, Rutschman is up with two down, takes a couple pitches and then strokes a liner to center. Looks like Krzmarzmick can get this one and we go to the 11th. But the ball drops a little faster than expected and he gambles with a dive, but misses. The ball rolls to the fence, and when Rutschman sees that, he turns on the jets, loses his batting helmet around second and slides home on his belly with an inside-the-park home run to win the game!

There were no errors in the game. The pitching was sub-standard. But from a purely entertainment standpoint, this was one of the best games I’ve ever seen.

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History, M's, Major Leagues, Rants

Mariners Opening Day 2018

I normally write only about games I attend in person, so this post is an exception, since I watched the game on my TV. Likewise, there is usually travel involved, and for this one there wasn’t (unless you count the trips from the couch to the fridge). Also, I try always to include some pictures, but who wants a picture of my TV screen (your TV is probably bigger than mine – no, I will not comment on the relative size of anyone’s nuclear button!). So, sorry about the broken rules and unobserved norms, but I’m old and not as well behaved as I used to be.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I feel compelled to write as a member of that subset of the wretched of the earth, namely, Mariners fans. So if you do not suffer from that affliction, what follows may be of little interest. It is both a love letter and a rant.

The first point has to be that the M’s won their 2018 opening game at home against the very good Cleveland Indians and their Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber. It was a very good game (final score 2-1) and puts the M’s in a tie for first with (among others) the World Series champion Houston Astros. That probably won’t happen again this year, but it may stave off mathematical elimination (which we often fear will happen by May 1 [yes, I know, that cannot really occur (except in a strike-shortened season), but anyone who follows the M’s knows the feeling]) for a day or two.

King Felix Hernandez started the game (his 10th straight opening day start, 11th overall) and I was curious to see how he’d do. He clearly was not the M’s best pitcher last year (that was James Paxton), and he had an injury-shortened spring training, so the decision to start him was based more on nostalgia than analytics. Felix also no longer has the same stuff he did in earlier years. But he is adapting by changing speeds and locations and messing with batters’ expectations. He threw too many three ball counts, but got lucky and allowed no runs. The key for him in retaining his royalty will be staying healthy – it is a long season.

That leads to another observation. When the M’s suffered a blizzard of injuries in spring training, my friend Jim Smith observed that they not only had that to worry about, but also had to confront the fact that Nelson Cruz (age 37) and Robinson Cano (age 35) both tested positive for old. Add to that their starting left fielder the (formerly) incomparable Ichiro is 44, previously starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is 36 and recently signed outfielder Jayson Werth is 38 and it becomes clear that they have something in mind. Management has obviously figured out that the baby boomers are moving to retirement homes and concluded that there’s money to be made in that business. But they have taken a lesson from their golfing buddies and gone them one better by developing their own clientele and combining the two into an entirely new venture . . . wait for it . . . SENIOR BASEBALL!

More seriously (read, depressingly) my friend John Nebel called my attention to an article in the Seattle Times that details the disastrous trades, mistakes, bad management and all around fecklessness by management that has kept the M’s out of the playoffs for 17 years. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you can read it here https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/mariners/analysis-why-the-mariners-will-end-the-drought-this-season-and-why-they-wont/.

A couple more thoughts. Cruz (Boomstick) won the game in the first inning with a mighty blast over the center field fence (on Kluber’s first pitch to him) after Cano got the M’s first hit just ahead of him. It looked great. But I can’t square that with his swing-and-a-miss motion at other times. How can such an awkward rusty-gate swing and the Boomstick thunder come from the same guy? I guess the obvious answer is that they’re not the same – one’s a miss and the other is a dinger.

Can we agree that Dee Gordon isn’t yet an outfielder? He should have had the easy fly ball that scored the Tribe’s only run. We know he’s fast and can hit, so I’ll try to be patient.

And don’t get me started about closer Edwin Diaz. I guess I should be pleased when a young guy honors tradition but channeling former M’s closers like Bobby Ayala, Jose Mesa (aka Joe Table) and Fernando Rodney is not my idea of a wise career move. He did get the save, but nearly at the expense of my suffering a heart attack.

Speaking of Rodney, did you see that in his first chance as the Twins new closer on opening day, he gave up a walk off homer to none other than Adam Jones, former Mariner and subject of perhaps the very worst trade (for Eric Bedard) in Mariners history? At least Rodney is no longer a Mariner. I wish Jones still was.

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Eats, History, Major Leagues, Rants

Nats v. Phillies

One of my partners said he was going to be in Washington D. C. and had the audacity to suggest that I join him for a game at Nationals Park.  What could I say?  I’m a complete pushover, so of course I was there.

The park is relatively new and looks larger than it is, with a seating capacity of just over 41,000.  If you count the boxes, it has five levels, which I think is unique in the big leagues.  It also has some history because of the long string of presidents who have attended big league games in Washington.  It also has a tapered screen, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, and they used a temporary screen along the foul line fences during BP, which was removed for the game.  That’s a new one, too.

On this night, folks were invited to bring their dogs (as in canines) to the game.  The rationale for this utterly escapes me, but it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.  What was new, however, was a couple of squares of real grass on the concourse to provide the pups a natural place to do their business.  Think of the career opportunities – Washington Nationals pooper scooper intern!

As usual, we arrived early to check out the place and sat in centerfield to watch the Phillies take BP.  What we saw was remarkable and depressing.  An old guy (mid-60’s at least) was there with his glove along with some (unrelated) kids.  When one came our way, the old guy headed for it and used his glove to block a kid from getting to it.  When the kid’s dad confronted him, he was completely unapologetic for his behavior, yelling at the dad that he had the same rights as the kids.  I guess baseball has its dark side too.

The Nats jumped to an early lead, but soon fell behind on a couple of homers.  The Phils Tommy Joseph hit an extremely high pop up that looked to go foul down the left field line.  But it didn’t.  It also just managed to go over the left field fence.  If the total distance traveled in the air could be measured, I’m sure it would have been one of the longest dingers ever hit.  I certainly have never seen one that high actually leave the park.

The food was fairly standard, with the exception of one counter that sold only grilled cheese sandwiches, appropriately named “Throwin’ Cheese.”

And of course the in-game diversions.  Here we had the presidents race, oddly enough won by our founder, and the city’s namesake, George.

A good time was had by all and, in the end, the Nats rallied to take the game 4-3.

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Minor Leagues, Oddity

Bend Elks vs. Gresham GreyWolves

Who knew that there was more than one college wooden bat league in Oregon? Certainly not me.

 
So the family, gathered at Central Oregon’s incredibly beautiful Black Butte Ranch to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary, ventured out to Bend to watch the Bend Elks take on the Gresham GreyWolves at Bend’s Vince Genna Stadium.

 

 

The first impression had little to do with baseball. While negotiating a complicated (not sure why) ticket transaction, some of us had an animated conversation with one of the staff about the moths that were everywhere, including a makeshift moth graveyard along the fence by the ticket office. These were not your regular house moths, but more like a miniature C-130 cargo plane with movable wings.

 

 

 

Next we got to our seats to find that they were already held by season ticket holders. They suggested we move down a couple since it was unlikely others would show up, and we did. Then more folks showed up who had been sold the same seats. A novel revenue generating program, it seems. The real owners were gracious and we managed to accommodate everyone without litigation.

 
Those folks were very nice, seemed well acquainted with the team and were particularly attached to the several Elks players from Oregon State, one of whom was Pat Casey’s son. Turns out the guy was one of Jacoby Ellsbury’s (now of the NY Yankees) high school coaches at Madras.

 
Shortly after the game got started, focus returned to the moths. The stands were completely screened from the field and many moths had taken up temporary residence on the screen, some so long that they died there. The first foul ball into the screen sent many of the moths to other landing spots, the dead ones mainly to rest on fans. An amusing sight.

 

 

 

 

Later, we were treated to a public address announcement congratulating us on our anniversary which had been surreptitiously arranged by our son.

 

Later still, Bend’s mascot, Vinnie the Elk was tossing T-shirts into the crowd and one landed right in our daughter’s lap with no acquisitive effort on her part. Not only a nice shirt (bearing the Elks logo, of course) but it fits as well!

 

The only real baseball note centers on Bend’s catcher. Granted, his pitcher was throwing in the dirt occasionally, but this guy had a talent for lunging, scuffling and just generally rassling the ball like none other I’ve seen. The baseball was not top quality, but it was entertaining. Perhaps the moths were circling the flame.

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Travel

Wilsall, Montana

Never heard of it?  Neither had I till the lack of any baseball between Sioux Falls and Portland caused me to look for alternative diversions.  Lo and behold, Wilsall is the site of an annual rodeo, which just happened to coincide with my arrival in Livingston (gateway to Yellowstone – from the north).  So of course I had to attend.

The rodeo grounds covered more area than the rest of the town, but the setting was spectacular, with the snow-covered mountains in the background and the green hills leading down to the Yellowstone River.

I arrived just a few minutes late and the place was packed.  I had to park about three blocks away and from the area I covered, my vehicle was the only one from out of state.  Lots of families and it seemed like everyone knew each other.

But the action is the story.  The calves won the calf-roping contest, with only two out of about ten actually being lassoed.  The most exciting event was the women’s barrel racing, in which the horse and rider must circle three barrels, then race to the finish line, the winner being the one with the lowest time.

I loved watching the cutting horses and their riders who coaxed the bucking broncs, the skittish calves and even the horses whose riders jumped off to rassle a calf to the ground or tie it up after lassoing it.  Those horses and riders were as one, knowing just what to do and where to go.

A piece of America that we don’t see in the city.

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Eats, Minor Leagues

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

With a name like the Canaries, you just have to go see them.  Actually, I did see the Canaries in Wichita last year, but of course that was not on their home turf.  The Canaries play at Sioux Falls Stadium, better known as the Bird Cage, and play in the American Independent League, which is not affiliated with major-league baseball.

Unlike the Wichita stadium, the Bird Cage has natural turf.  In this game, the Birds, as they are affectionately called, faced the Gary South Shore Railcats, looking for a sweep of a four game series.  Unfortunately, they were a bit short-sighted, losing 6-5 in 11 innings.

There wasn’t much about the game, the stadium or anything else to set this game apart from others.  Both starting pitchers were lefties, throwing in the mid-80’s.  The Birds all wore long pants, the Railcats all wore high pants, some even with stirrups.

A ways south of Sioux Falls, there was a billboard that read “Eat steaks, wear furs, keep your guns.  The American Way”.  (You can’t make this up!). So naturally, when I got to the ball park, since they weren’t serving steak, I had to break with baseball tradition and have a burger, the only beef product available.  Actually, a cheeseburger.  The burger itself was apparently cooked sometime last week and had been residing on a shelf ever since.  It was topped with a slice of rubber cheese taken directly from the fridge and slapped into a (at least) day-old bun.  It was, quite simply, terrible.  The worst ballpark food I’ve ever had.  The only saving grace was that they had my favorite Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, so there was something pleasant to wash it down with.

This may be my last baseball post of this trip, since there is no professional baseball scheduled anywhere along my route to PDX. I’ll look for some amateur action or a rodeo or something, but don’t hold your breath.

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