BASEBALL: Free the Umps!

There’s an irony growing in baseball that is a drag on the nation’s pastime, one that could weaken the new popularity the game has been growing in this century. It erases the amusement of that momentary uncertainty that the fan feels as an umpire’s arm movement is about to rule ball or strike, out or safe. There’ve been no guarantees of right or wrong. Fans cherish their right to agree or disagree. “Your eye doctor needs to see you, you bum!”

Now that right is gone. The ump is never a bum anymore. All this amusement is gone — sucked away by a faceless panel of analysts tucked away in a supposed array of TV monitors in the nameless canyons of New York City. A group who have the last word on whether the umpires got it right. For starters, who trusts New York?

This relatively new wrinkle in umpiring, intended to get calls on the bases right every time, not only dampens fun for the fans, who revel in umpiring for themselves, it clouds umpiring with a double standard. Calls on bases first, second and third, each with its own umpire, must meet perfection now. But calls at home plate, of balls and strikes, suffer the same delicious margins of doubt, consistent in the mind of the man in the mask and heavy vest, they always have.

Such is the shadow of error on balls and strikes that a batter’s mates in the dugout must refrain from loud dissent to those calls. Any slightly boisterous second-guessing of the umpire can provoke ejection without warning. Even the manager must tread very —very lightly — and converse no more than rarely with the umpire, and always in a friendly voice, or face ejection.

Yet in contrast to the new standards of perfection for calls on the bases, balls and strikes are miscalled with embarrassing regularity. In almost any half inning, a half dozen calls at the plate are likely to be wrong, as computed in the video strike zone that overlays the camera image. The outcome of a game may turn almost as often on a bad strike call as on a play at a base, if such data were kept and reviewed intensively.

No one would argue that the game belongs less to the fans than the players. The players are paid evermore outlandishly, while the fans may cut the family food budget just to squeeze into the bleachers a few times a season. So the least we can give the fans is their right to call the game as they see it, loudly second-guessing the people on the field paid to make them. No other team sport matches baseball in this liberal and incessant impeachment of the umpires, and it has always been a large measure of the popularity of the national pastime. After a close game of close calls, it often runs on irately over dinner and far into the evening, even into fitful sleep. It defines pastime quite perfectly.

So please, MLB, get that unknown panel of video officials in New York out of the game. Get it back to where it rightly has always belonged: the endless war between fans and umps.

Make those “bums” earn their money!

Frank Mensel — August 2015

Betting on The DONALD

My great mate, Dr. Bonny, and I have waged a steak dinner on the 2016 election. If the race IS Hillary against Trump, I win. Any other matchup makes her the winner.

Fox News’ attempt to narrow the GOP field to 10 wannabes produced a huge TV audience and a debate that divided the pundits. Some thought the Trump campaign jumped the tracks on more than one of his responses. I saw his warmly awaited gun-slinging as giving him more momentum – as did the majority of the media.

It seems clearly to me that he leaves the GOP with only one choice: him. Who’s going to break his momentum? Surely not another Bush, though Jeb may well be the best of the lot. George W. left the name and the presidency dripping in the worst recession since the Great Depression, with poverty at an all-time high and the banks near collapse. American voters are famous for short memories, but not that short.

Trump gives the party the ticket-topper it has long dreamed of: billionaire. Romney in 2012 came only close, among other shortcomings.

He ruled the Fox stage from the first question, which had to be aimed at him because he leads the polls by a wide margin. Some cynics suggest that he rigged it – by greasing a few palms.

He was more than ready. When asked if he wasn’t the nominee, would he support the candidate who was, or make a 3rd Party bid, his reply that he was leaving that door open, guaranteed that the whole evening, running later into the inevitable media frenzy, would keep him center stage. I’m liking my odds.

With his fame and fortune rolling onward (what other candidate arrived in Cleveland in his own oversized get, with TRUMP in huge letters on each side?), what are the Republican alternatives? Who might compete with that fame and fortune? Or with his style, so loudly, bullish Republican?Despite the third-strike risk of his name, Jeb seems to have the edge so far. He’s well ahead of the pack in fund-raising, with millions already banked for the campaign. Yet Trump again commands an edge, free to run on his own billions. The candidacy of someone who bears no large debt to any backers has rich appeal to voters.

The dark horse might well be the Wisconsin governor. But the tainted campaigns that have kept him in that post have marked him very plainly as the lapdog of the Koch Brothers. And we all know what the Kochs expect, an economy that remains heavily geared to oil and chemicals, which are the core of their vast holdings. Climate change?

The chances that Trump won’t head the GOP ticket seems most likely to hinge on whether he self -destructs, but there are signs that he’s getting some feel for the limits of bombast he can spout. Yet he carries another obvious handicap that is already working against his party: the war on women. Republicans may be getting more abuse for this than they deserve in general, but it plays as three strikes delivered by fringes on the right: the anti-abortion evangelicals, the opponents of choice, and the men who traffic in flesh.

Trump has shown too little tendency to treat women as equals. His wives have been widely viewed as trophy wives. How it might play in a campaign against Hillary Clinton is uncertain. It may never play on the surface of that matchup. Hillary has to be aware that many women are still unhappy that she didn’t dump Bill for his wanton sex life. But they also know that her eyes were wide open in days they shared at Yale, where his appetite played freely and openly. She chose to marry him for the benefit of his other talents, including his deep love of country, which has kept him public favor.

This will be an interesting subtext to the campaign. How much might Hillary be blamed for Bill’s sins? But she won’t make VP Gore’s mistake of rejecting his support. As a campaigner of unmatched charm, he will be going 24/7 to give her the shot she deserves, and to make himself a first of history: the Hubby in the White House. His health may well be her biggest worry. Some pundits aver that if Trump is nominated, Hillary will carry all 50 States. The women’s vote looms as the largest quandary. There’s no doubt how different Bill is from The Donald. However fairly, the latter is known as a user of women. With Bill, the girls all know they play as their own risk.

My odds keep me laughing. I’m so comfortable with the feeling that Trump versus Clinton is almost inevitable. More debates seem bound to improve my odds.

Frank Mensel — August 2015


My Fellow Americans,

Of this faith I am not the author. But it has grown on me, through my love of community college students. It’s a faith spun by the spirit that I see working in them, in their pursuit of meaning and purpose in their lives, unleveraged as they are by privilege. If “the meek shall inherit the earth,” I see no one more deserving than community college student bodies.

In a near half century of professional involvement in higher education, I have counted myself very fortunate to find myself working inside the phenomenon that has become the community college movement. When in 1968 I signed on as Congressional liaison for the American Association of Junior Colleges, I left a higher paying job in federal administration; yet I knew instantly that I’d made the right move.

It confirmed something I’d always known about myself: I’m populist, to the bone. My mother made sure I was raised that way. Community colleges are the populists of higher education, easily as important to national progress and the promise of equality through opportunity as the cutting-edge research that American universities lead. Community colleges are the very spirit of equality through opportunity that is the spirit of America, the pulse of the American Dream.

Perhaps nothing nourishes the spirit more surely than being in the right place at the right time. That was the spirit that greeted me at AAJC. At 86, I can see that it has always been there for me. It was my good fortune for the last decade of my Washington career to lead Congressional liaison for both the AACC, evolved from AAJC, and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). It was a productive decade in federal legislation for community colleges (detailed in a separate article).

I alone have held that dual appointment, during which I continued to lend counsel to the American Student Association of Community Colleges, ASACC, which I cofounded, hoping to see college students become a strong and badly needed voice in the national affairs of higher education. I wanted their legislative priorities harmonized as much as possible with those of AACC and ACCT, and vise versa.

That a cohesive national student voice has not materialized on federal policies and programs is the largest regret of my career. It is badly needed, for at least two reasons. Students can explain their needs to Congress far better than can college presidents, who can’t help but show self interest when cast in that role. Second, student leaders need the benefit of such experience, from which the nation will benefit as they grow into careers in both the private and public sectors, occasionally as legislators themselves.

The desire to help them nurture and unify their national voice, spurred by the populist family of community colleges, keeps me working with the colleges and their student governments at every opportunity. Their student leaders now speak for the largest and fastest growing system of postsecondary education, in which women have become the largest enrollment. Their upward mobility is now bringing women three out of every five four-year degrees. The twin rockets powering their rise have been, and are, community colleges and Pell Grants. At nearly every college, women outnumber men in claiming Pell Grants. And in both urban and rural community colleges, Pell Grants ordinarily carry half or more of the students earning college credit.

Without Pell Grants, a considerable number of rural colleges could not survive. The grants enrich both the campus and community economically and culturally, as they flow from student pockets to campus needs and local merchants.

Community colleges are increasingly known as the colleges of lifelong learning, because they are most widely used by employers and employees alike to keep job skills at the changing and cutting edge. The advancing popularity of their occupational courses and tracks makes them the largest formal engine of workforce development. Four great professions that gird up the American Way are grounded in community colleges: classroom teachers, health care, law enforcement, and emergency services. Teachers use community colleges more often than universities for the courses they need to maintain their professional certification. Their successes in these areas prompted Florida a generation ago to empower all the community colleges to offer four-year degrees in education.

In their singular focus on learning, community colleges are further advantaged by the absence of overblown athletics, which have become the tail that wags the dog at too many universities, where academic prowess is often overshadowed by the pursuit of bowl bids and the fat checks and alumni cheers that go with them. If a community college wins a national title in any sport, the celebration is largely confined to the community of the winner.

Community college diversity is always reflected in their student governments. It’s almost as common to find students in their thirties as students in their teens on these freely elected boards. In my meetings through the years with student boards, that diversity has often given me the feeling of a church. In fact, it was in my first meeting with the student board of Victor Valley College, California, that this feeling first arose, a decade ago at the opening dinner of the annual July retreat of VVC’s newly formed SGB, where I would be called upon to deliver the keynote following dessert.

I shared a table with five students, and one said as dinner was being served that she had read in preparation for the retreat that I’d had a large hand in Congress’ enactment of the Pell Grant. At least two at the table were on Pell Grants, so the group was excited when I offered a brief recap of that history. On my immediate right was a new member of the board who looked more like a high school freshman than a college student. Whisker free, he was the picture of innocence. When we arose from the table 30 minutes later, this lad turned to the students rising behind him and said, “I think I’ve just dined with God.” I was so shocked I could neither laugh nor cry.

When I’d delivered my keynote, praising the glories of community colleges for their lift to the American Way and the American Dream, a faculty member who was in the audience shook my hand and said, “That was quite a sermon.”

I was invited back as advisor-team the following year, and as I was called upon for the keynote following the opening dinner, all the students unbuttoned and peeled down their shirts, to reveal identical black t-shirts. They turned so I could not miss the message emblazoned on all the backs, “The Church of the Community Colleges” in dayglo green, and below it in day-glow orange, “Rev. Frank Mensel.”

While everyone chuckled, I had a different reaction. I felt a spirituality. The students had touched the religion that had always peeked in and about my life. I could see clearly that the interest that drew me to higher education from the beginning was the students and their aspirations. They were my faith, my church. The populist church, they always will be.

The creed that fits it like a glove is the Preamble of our Constitution, which I’ve always felt is the most glorious capsulization of human aspirations for liberty ever penned, to wit:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That is the faith that I’ve come to appreciate as the fountain of my love of life and the pulse of my career, so richly complemented and enlarged in my bonds of many decades of professional association and friendship with spouse Dr. Bonny Franke and our families. Any audiences that risk inviting me are bound to hear about it. Maybe feel it too.

Yours truly,

Frank Mensel (“The Rev”)

July, 2015

P.S. At about the time our annual engagements with the Victor Valley SGB got rolling, I received a totally unexpected accolade from a very different direction. I was at Dulles Airport looking for a dear aunt who was about to arrive from Europe when a voice from the next gate called “Frank Mensel.” I turned to see Bob Watson, a senior program officer of the National Science Foundation, approaching. He said, “Frank, have the community colleges built a monument to you yet?” When I smiled and shook me head, he continued, “NSF dragged our feet all the way, in the enactment of the Advanced Tech Education program, but you beat us at every turn. A big federal agency beaten by one dogged sob.” We laughed. Happily, during the several years that this program was evolving from the first bill in the House, Andrew Korim, vice president of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny College, came to town to help lobby it. In fact, he and I collaborated in the first draft of it, which he then persuaded his own congressman, Rep. Doug Walgren, D-PA, to introduce. Fortunately, Walgren served on the House Science Committee, and chaired a subcommittee, in which he gave the bill its first hearing. When Walgren lost his seat, more senior Members were then backing the bill. Their support got it enacted. That program in its first year increased NSF funding for community colleges tenfold. Before its enactment, NSF funding to community colleges had never exceeded $3.5 million a year. In its first year, Advanced Tech awarded $35 million in grants to community colleges. — FM