Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Mariano Rivera And Dick Lugar Know About Everything

What Mariano Rivera And Dick Lugar Know About Everything

The great Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera tore up his knee last week, ending his season, and quite possibly, his career. 

The senior Senator from Indiana, Dick Lugar, will be torn out of his job today, losing in the Republican Primary to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.  His political career, except perhaps in an appointed role, is probably over.

We are poorer for both these losses.

Rivera was the embodiment of grace under fire, quiet efficiency, and class. If you love baseball, as I do, you know that there are only a handful of players who achieve a certain level of excellence in this sport of highly refined skills.  Baseball is far more like golf or tennis than the other major sports.  Athleticism helps, but there is also a mental aspect to the game, a certain discipline and even ruthlessness you need when trying to do something that is exquisitely difficult for mere mortals. Rivera had those qualities, but conducted himself in a manner than earned universal respect.

Lugar was a consistent conservative on social and economic issues, but he made his real mark on foreign policy and defense issues.  Notably, he worked across the aisle with people like Sam Nunn, the conservative Democratic Senator from North Carolina, on truly existential issues of the day, including arms control.  His great accomplishments include significant reductions in nuclear arsenals pointed at the United States and efforts at keeping those weapons away from rogue states.  A man of intellect with a grasp of complexity, he was also a person of grace and class.  Lugar advanced the cause of his state and his nation, and there are few things I can think of to be a better epitaph for a politician.

Rivera was unique. By most calculations, both statistical and from contemporary evaluations, he is the best relief pitcher of all time. Baseball fans may disagree as to where he rates among all pitchers, but, for comparison's sake, there is a statistic that normalizes Earned Run Average among pitchers in relationship to a seasonal mean of 100.  The highest mark by a starter was Pedro Martinez at 154, followed by the Hall of Fame great Walter Johnson at 148. The second highest ranked relief pitcher with at least 1000 innings pitched is Hoyt Willhelm at 147.  Rivera is at 206, a number so ridiculous it looks like a typo. 

When Lugar was just 35, he won the mayoralty of Indianapolis, and his time was marked plaudits from both sides of the aisle for innovative approaches to difficult problems.  He narrowly lost his first race for the Senate to the legendary Birch Bayh, but crushed the incumbent Democratic Vance Hartke two years later, and is now ending his sixth term.  He (was) so popular that six years ago, the Democrats did not even run a candidate against him, and he got 87% of the vote. 

Sadly, a career that spans 36 years in the Senate also straddles a time of intensifying partisanship.  In 1977, when Lugar was sworn in, the Senate and House had its share of small-mindedness, but it also had people of real ability, thoughtful and forward thinking, willing to fight like cats and dogs when necessary, but able to do big things together when the nation’s interests were at stake.  36 years later, the Dick Lugars of the world are rapidly becoming extinct and the Senate and House leaderships are filled with mediocre strivers.

Why should I, a Democrat worried about a GOP takeover of the Senate, mourn for the loss of a conservative Republican, particularly when Mourdock is a polarizing figure who ran a bare-knuckled campaign and who might more beatable?  It just doesn’t feel right in my gut.  Mourdock was recently quoted as saying  “the time for being collegial is past…It’s time for confrontation.”  Another nihilist, just what we all need. 

Mourdock isn’t an aberration.  All across the country, moderates of both parties are being driven from office, and in Indiana, the situation is particularly acute.  Along with Lugar, Evan Bayh, along with the Blue Dogs Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth, are gone, and Joe Donnelly will likely lose to Mourdock.

Obviously, as a New Yorker, I have very little feel for Indiana politics. So I wrote a local conservative columnist, and he was gracious enough to reply.  He said, in effect, that there were two types of GOP Mourdock voters.  The first group were indeed the ones who wanted confrontation.  And the second were people looking for more energy than the 80 year-old Lugar could give.

I found that a little comforting, that it wasn’t all about the anger.   I sometimes think that the next great laboratory of change will be the Midwest, out of necessity.  It has a great many problems and discordant elements; social conservatives and more liberal university towns, large unions, wealth and poverty, farms, mining and shipping, reeling rust-belt cities barely hanging on to their industrial base.  The Midwest must evolve and all these interests have to be reconciled. There’s a lot going on there right now, from the slashing partisanship of Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, to the more cerebral and less confrontational experimentation of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who seems to have something of the early Lugar in him-he has a distinct ideology, but is more problem solver than spoils collector. 

Short term, things don’t look good.  Politics as cage match, with good people the casualties. The Yankees aren’t doing too well, either. But, I found a couple of grace notes.  Rivera announced he was going to rehab and come back in 2013.  And a conservative columnist from Indiana took the time to speak kindly about my city and of his family and mine. 

I think I’m going to bank on Mariano and the Midwest. You have to have hope.