Monthly Archives: June 2012

Refusing to Knuckle Under

I love sports. I loved playing them. I love watching them on TV. I love writing about sports − especially the stories that tell us about our humanity. Here are two short stories about sports and the athletes that connect with my humanity.

The European Soccer Championship will be played in Kiev, Ukraine, in a few days. Germany is one of the four teams left in the competition. Seventy years ago in Kiev a different kind of soccer game was played.

The German Army was occupying Ukraine − part of the Soviet Union then − and the authorities decided to have a little competition with a team from the conquering, well-fed Germans playing a team of locals. The surprise was that the Kiev amateurs who worked at the bread factory were good. They played on a team called FC Start and even though they were wartime thin, they could really play the game.

In a game publicized by handbills posted around the city, the Germans and the bread makers of Kiev played with the S.S. watching intently − and probably warning the Kievers that the “Master Race” was going to prevail − or else.

The goalie for the Ukrainians was injured early in the game, revived, and played poorly allowing three quick goals. The score was tied at halftime. According to legend the S.S. goons warned the locals at the half that they would pay a penalty if the German soldiers lost the game. But this was much more than a game. This was war. The Kiev bread makers took the game to the soldiers and beat them 5-3.

Soon after, six of the Kiev players were arrested and taken to a concentration camp nearby. They worked as slave laborers for a month. One day the Commandant called everybody in the yard and announced that a punishment was to be meted out. Three of the six amateur soccer players from FC Start who had beaten the German team were executed on the spot.

There is a statue near the stadium where the European Championships will be played commemorating the triumph of the brave and heroic players of FC Start in 1942.

The story inspired several films including the 1981 film “Escape From Victory” (see clip below), staring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow, Daniel Massey, and Pelè.

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Last Sunday night, the Mets played the Yankees on the ESPN featured game. R.A. Dickey versus C.C. Sabathia. “The Knuckleballer” against the great power-pitcher C.C., who is 6’8″ and 300 pounds soaking wet.

I have been excited about R.A. Dickey all year. I’ve been cajoling my friend Jerry Levine to review his autobiography for TMW. Why? Because R.A. is the “Everyman” having that one impossible, incredible amazing season before our eyes at the age of 37.

He was a washed up pitcher a few years ago who had struggled through Minor League Baseball after being good enough to be a #1 draft pick in 1996. He had lost the fastball of his youth, but he had determination and pitching moxie − and he knew how to throw a knuckleball.

A knuckleball is actually thrown off the fingertips. If it’s thrown perfectly it has almost no rotation and will move erratically as it nears the plate. Nobody knows how it will act as it dances up to the batter. Often the catcher will miss catching it. A pitcher struggles to throw it for strikes.

There have been a few memorable knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Phil Niekro won 300 games and is in the Hall of Fame. His brother Joe was good too. Wilbur Wood had a few wonderful seasons and started 49 games for the White Sox in 1972. But knuckleballers are an oddity. Today, Dickey is the one and only devotee of the pitch in the Majors.

And at 37 he is having a miracle season. Recently he pitched two one-hit shutouts in a row and had a streak of 44 ⅔ scoreless innings. He has tamed his knuckler and can throw it for strikes, change speeds, adjust its height, and baffle hitters by throwing an occasional fastball at 82. He is 11-1 currently with an eight-game winning streak.

The matchup Sunday night had a big buildup in New York because of the Mets-Yankees rivalry, but for me it was a chance to see my new hero − R.A. Dickey − a little bit of “The Natural” and “Damn Yankees” being played out in real life, by a guy who wrote about being abused as a child in his autobiography which was published before the season started. R.A. Dickey is an overnight success − at 37 − in Major League Baseball. He may start the All-Star Game for the National League.

In the game Sunday night he gave up five runs in a no-decision. Sabathia did the same. But for somebody who lives baseball and relishes the stories of the game, it was one I will remember. R.A. − you’re the man.

Questions: Is American football as a participation sport on the decline?

What’s you’re favorite sports movie?

Watch a clip from “Escape to Victory,” aka “Victory,” a 1981 film about Allied prisoners of war who are interned in a German prison camp during World War II and beat the Germans in a soccer match.

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I Feel Better Without Health Insurance

Even though I am a 30-year-old homeowner who is financially stable and university educated, I have no health insurance. And now I’ve completely given up on the whole business.

I tried for years to be a responsibly insured person and the experience was frustrating. Because I work as an independent contractor I am not offered health insurance through work, and I don’t qualify for any state assisted programs because my husband and I make too much money.

I used to worry constantly when we didn’t have insurance. We listened to the horror stories in the news of people’s life savings being wiped out by an accident or unexpected illness and took the message to heart − you must have health insurance or you will eventually regret it. That fear led us to purchase a $180 a month individual health care plan through Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Indiana. The plan’s $11,000 deductible left a lump in my throat as I wrote the check every month to the for-profit insurance giant that wouldn’t cover basic doctor visits and whose monthly premiums didn’t nearly offset any prescriptions.

A recent visit to the endocrinologist for a basic blood workup that I had been led to believe would be covered under the policy’s “preventative care” clause resulted in a $250 bill for the five minute appointment and an additional bill of $650 from a hospital that the doctor’s office had outsourced extensive blood work to that I unknowingly authorized. When I called the doctor’s office to ask why I was receiving a bill for services I didn’t even know were being ordered, they told me that they had a poster on the wall in the waiting room that stated they may send work out, so I was responsible for the charges. My disgust at the whole system and the feeling that I had been cheated led me to make a five minute phone call to Blue Cross requesting that the insurance plan be canceled.

My husband and I, 29 and 30 respectively, with no medical problems or regular prescriptions, are for the time being wholeheartedly willing to take the risk of living without insurance. We tried to play the insurance game. We tried to be good Americans contributing to the good of the whole. But we lost, and we’ve quit the game until something that’s affordable and works better becomes available.

Even though I am at peace with our decision to live without the false sense of security having that insurance plan brought us, and the $2,200 we sent every year to Blue Cross is now sitting safely in the bank, each time I take my teenage foster son to the doctor or the emergency room a twinge of jealously hits me. He’s never once thought about if he can afford to go to the doctor. He just goes, hands over his Medicaid number, and poof, he’s taken care of.

My experience with kids and their families on Medicaid made me a defender of Mitt Romney’s statement about how the poor were being taken care of in America and the middle class weren’t. In the midst of the tizzy he created, and while the Democrats were making him out to be an uncaring monster, I totally understood where he was coming from. I’ve seen the parents of our foster children rotate in and out of the hospital almost weekly on Medicaid’s tab. I’ve seen the emergency room treated like a rehab facility as the parents kick their habit for a few days. And I’ve heard from my Aunt, a nurse at a huge downtown University hospital for 30 years, about the games people play to stay one more night or receive that next dose of painkiller.

It was a relief when the insurance ties were cut. No more feeling taken advantage of. No more games. If I am sick, I pay for my care. If I have a serious illness or an accident, I will pay what I can each month directly to the hospital until the bill is paid in full. Now if I need to go to the doctor I tell them upfront that I have no insurance and will be paying cash. I ask what the cash discount is and usually get about 25% knocked off the bill. I write the check to the office directly for the services I receive, and it’s satisfying.

That surprise hospital bill that showed up in the mail taught me that as long as they are being paid something regularly, the hospital is content and will basically leave you alone. I send in just $20 a month to be put toward the $650 bill for the unauthorized blood work I’m on the hook for. That’s 32.5 months the hospital will be waiting to receive my payment in full. And it feels good.

Question: Should the government cover everybody?

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The Computer Has Ruined Everything

I love email and Google, but I have arrived at the conclusion that for almost everything else in my modern office the computer has ruined things.

I am convinced that paper records and references are more reliable and accessible than computerized data for me. Let me give an example. At Graff-Pinkert & Co., our machinery trading firm, we have long kept a card file of machines bought and sold by brand and size. Since we have sold literally thousands of screw machines in the last 70 years, we have a dramatic trove of useful information that is easily accessible to the people in the office.

Yesterday I was looking for users of 2 ¼” 6-spindle Wickman automatics. By looking through our cards on sales of that size of machine I could locate people who were likely to have one for sale today. But it gave me more depth. It showed the price a client paid for such a machine 25 years ago and what work was done on it. The card showed who we bought the machine from and how much we paid for it. It even showed the attachments on the machine in 1987 along with a pencil notation my father had written about buying spindle bearings. This was more than a record, it was history and it had texture, even emotion. An original and important Graff-Pinkert document was unearthed for me and my son Noah to use. “Is that Grandpa’s  handwriting?” he asked, realizing that he was gripping a piece of lore, a fragment of the past. Was it the Dead Sea Scrolls? No, but for Noah and Rex Magagnotti and I it was a yellow memory that tied us to that old machine that we had bought Hardinge Masters for.

The card mentioned that we paid a commission in 1984 to Roy Hodkinson in England when we bought it. Another wonderful memory rekindled, because Roy was not only our European contact, but a wonderful friend we talked to almost every day.

Computers are cool tools and I love my iPad as a communication device, but it will be discarded in a year or two. But not those “Master Cards” that are the soul of Graff-Pinkert and the Graff family. They are an archeological treasure to me and I’ve allowed them to be neglected in recent years.

The more sophisticated the computer systems like QuickBooks and ACT have become, the more inaccessible and opaque the information seems to be. The screw-ups we have in the office because of lousy data entry and poor access for the people who need the information to make good decisions outweigh the alleged efficiencies of office computerization. Add in all the time we waste on the avalanches of email, Facebook and Twitter litter and it makes me long for the languid efficiency of longhand.

Question: Would you like to go back to paper and typewriters?

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New Bosses at Okuma and DMG/Mori Seiki

Noah and I recently had the opportunity to interview Mark Mohr of DMG/Mori Seiki USA and Jim King of Okuma America Corp. Both men replaced entrenched, almost iconic, leaders at their companies in Thomas R. Dillon at DMG/Mori Seiki USA and Larry Schwartz at Okuma America. Mohr came up through the ranks, while King was a corporate soldier who marched through many jobs before settling in Charlotte to be groomed for Okuma’s top job in the U.S. Both men said business was thriving and their firms had completely come back from the dark days of 2009.

Their approaches to IMTS are somewhat similar in that they respect the institution, but DMG/Mori Seiki USA is keeping the massive footprint of past shows while Okuma America is trying to be a standout without breaking the bank.

At Chicago’s IMTS 2012, to be held in early September, DMG/Mori Seiki USA will be proudly showing the first machines built at its new plant in Davis, California – horizontal machining centers. Okuma America, which used to build machine tools 25 years ago in Charlotte, N.C., has no plans to start constructing machines in the U.S.

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Americans may think Europe is a basket case, but GE is investing heavily in Turkey, the fastest growing country on the continent. Turkey does not use the Euro as its national currency. One of its strengths is that it has not fallen into the debt-financed entitlements of its traditional enemy, Greece. Turkey benefited from the lure of Germany for many of its young men in the 1970s and ’80s, where they went and learned trades in manufacturing and then  basically were kicked out after German unification.

Many returned to Turkey and started small businesses, often doing business with people they had worked for in Germany. If you want to do business in machining in Europe today, you go to Istanbul first.

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I attended my 50th high school reunion a couple of weeks ago. The Class of 1962 at University High School on the South side of Chicago almost all participated in a Yahoo! Chat group for several months prior to the get-together – so the reunion had really occurred online, where people revealed more about their lives than they did back in high school. When we arrived in person we were more available to connect emotionally because the online preparation made people less likely to fall into the chitchat drivel that marked earlier reunions. Most of my classmates wrote personal essays about their lives, which were made into a remarkable and moving book that almost everybody had read before the Saturday night dinner. I found that many of my peers are beginning new ventures, whether literary, charitable or career toppers. I left the reunion inspired to do more with my life like so many of the extraordinary folks of the Class of 1962 at U-High.

Question: Should Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds go to the Hall of Fame?

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A Love Letter to the Haters

We at Today’s Machining World have been thrilled with the activity on our Web site lately. We received 98 comments on a recent blog because Lloyd admitted he voted for Obama partly because of his skin color. While it pads our egos to get so many comments, we find the ugly negativity that flows out of many of our readers when buttons are pushed about politics in this country depressing. So for all the haters out there whose anger may cause them to lose perspective on what really matters, we are running the following poem by Mother Teresa, “Do It Anyway.”

Do It Anyway

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

These verses were reportedly written on the wall of Mother Teresa's home for children in Calcutta, India, and are widely attributed to her.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Question: If Mother Teresa ran for President would you vote for her?

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Breaking a Slump

Tim Lincecum, the “little pitcher that could” for the San Francisco Giants, now can’t. In his last 19 starts the Giants are 3-16. His Earned Run Average this year is 6.00, which is below mediocre. And Tim, once nicknamed “The Freak” in admiration for his powerful fastball yet small frame, has gone from winning the Cy Young (best pitcher) Award his first two seasons in the Majors, to barely being the fifth best starting pitcher on the team.

Tim "The Freak" Lincecum, starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.

Tim Lincecum is in a slump.

The slump and the streak are longtime interests of mine. They fascinate me because they are seemingly inexplicable. You’re good, you’re great, you stink – seemingly in the blink of an eye.

For Lincecum, I think you can eliminate the variable of performance enhancing drugs because his success most likely dates from the post-steroid era. He is quite little for a Big League hurler at 5’10”, 170 lbs., after eating pizza and swigging milkshakes. It’s why he was not the first draft pick after a brilliant career at the University of Washington. The Seattle Mariners passed on the hometown hero to the well-publicized disgust of his father, who had been his coach for life.

I watched Lincecum pitch against the Texas Rangers on Sunday and he looked like he was throwing as he had when he was almost always winning. But he walked a few hitters and then gave up the crucial hits that beat him 5-0. He wasn’t terrible – he just wasn’t good enough to win.

So maybe for “Timmy” it’s bad luck, or regression to the mean. Maybe he wasn’t that good during those first two great seasons and luck is evening out.

Probably not.

Maybe the Big League scouts have run his stats through enough computers that they have figured out his patterns or found that he is tipping his pitches.

Lincecum has a distinctive style, and it is possible after four years of watching him sling the baseball, hitters have adjusted to his action.

And maybe he has lost his confidence.

That is what I believe, because it has happened to me so many times in my life. Distraction, bad luck, complacency, the law of averages – one of those silly outliers that can ruin our lives just happens and screws us. Only God knows why – but we begin to doubt ourselves. And when we doubt ourselves we hang a breaking pitch with the score tied and they hit a homer and we lose. And if it happens a couple of times in a row, deep in our cerebellums, we begin to know we’re not great – we’re just good, or okay – and it is not ordained that we should almost always win.

And the slump starts to take over our lives.

Slumps happen in business. I’ve lived through many. I’m not talking about recessions – I mean human slumps – where you make bad pitches to customers. I think there are marriage slumps, and parenting slumps, too. Bad karma, lousy horoscopes, living too close to Detroit, who knows why slumps happen.

And how do you get out of a slump?

Keep doing what made you a winner in the first place. Keep slinging it, Timmy. And of course – change your socks.

Question: Are you superstitious? What are your strangest superstitions?

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Are We All Racists?

President Obama visiting EMC Precision Machining in Elyria, Ohio, in 2010.

On the last blog, I mentioned that I voted for Barack Obama partly because I wanted to see a black president during my lifetime. A lot of readers were bothered by this statement, so I would like to flesh out my rationale.

Over the course of 50 years, I have seen racial relationships in America gradually evolve from hatred and fear towards tolerance and acceptance on both sides. Growing up in the 1950s on the segregated Chicago’s Southside, I was on the frontlines of racial confrontation. My public grammar school drew from an affluent white area and a predominantly black area of apartments. We barely spoke to one another at Parkside School. Hyde Park High School, the public high school I would graduate to, was 98 percent black students. My parents sent my siblings and I to a private high school because Hyde Park was deemed to be too dangerous.

For my parents, black people were not Negroes – they were “Schvartz” or “Schvartzes” – an uncomplimentary Yiddish term for people of color. The black women I knew were maids, and the black men were janitors. In high school I was introduced to black kids who were children of doctors or lawyers or other members of the small black middle class in Chicago, but mixing other than in sports was taboo.

So I was born into a racist America, and though I was not a person who used the N-word or the Yiddish pejorative, I bought into the racial norms of the day – racial fear and social separation. In college I followed the careers of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and just barely started to connect with black athletes and other black students I met in the dorms. I was just beginning to wrestle with the disconnect of being intellectually tolerant and emotionally racist – a combination as American as a black and white sundae.

When it came time to live the American dream of a home in the suburbs with kids we moved further south to the Chicago suburb Olympia Fields. This is the home of the Olympia Fields Country Club where the 2003 U.S. Open Golf Tournament was held after they agreed to allow a symbolic black person to join. But over the last 30 years, the area became the suburb of choice for upwardly mobile urban black people. I was faced with the same decision my parents had to make – move to the land of white people and white schools, or send my kids to a school where they were the white minority. We stayed – not out of social-liberal purity – but because we liked the neighborhood. Did our kids like being the token white people? Not especially, but they accepted the idea without much dissent.

And we continue to live in the same house. Our neighbors are mostly African-American and most of the Jews are gone now. We have slowly developed black friends, but I can honestly say we are not color-blind. There is still the occasional twinge of fear when walking into a gaggle of black teenagers. We’re still Americans, so we are still at least a little racist.

So why vote for Obama? Racial guilt? No. Racial pride. The vote was a symbolic statement that I, Lloyd Graff, at 63 years old, was better than I started out. Obama was the beneficiary, and my vote at a polling place where most of the people voting had darker skin than my own – made me feel good.

Questions: Do you think most people in America are racist?

Do you consider yourself a racist?

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Is It Time to Change Presidents?

A little piece about politics today.

This is a fun election coming up, because it’s going to be close and brutal. The Super PACs are going to chew up both sides and leave them for dead. Politics ain’t beanbag.

The Presidential race is what I am wrestling with. I voted for Obama in 2008 because I wanted to see a black President in my lifetime and because McCain, who I preferred as a candidate, was stupid and desperate enough to pick Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Today, I am undecided.

Obama’s record is a mixed bag, for sure. He made bad choices when he took office by allowing the Congressional Democrats free reign to blow untold billions of dollars on pork. Then the Republicans took a hopelessly negative counter response.

On the other hand, he passed a health care law that has the potential to improve life for a lot of people. We do not know the cost, but I am taking a wait-and-see attitude on this one. The Supreme Court may overturn it, which could give the next Administration a chance to make it better.

Obama passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which helped business, and despite a lot of bad things happening, the economy has improved a lot. If we ask the simple question, “Are we better off now than we were four years ago?” I can absolutely say, yes. Economically, the country is far better off.

The controversial U.S. automaker bailouts must be considered a big success. GM and Chrysler are doing well. You can be an ideologue and complain, but in reality the attempt to save the auto industry worked better than anyone expected.

Mitt Romney is a disappointing Republican candidate, as he isn’t the mobilizing charismatic symbol of change that we need. He is an unauthentic technocrat, but he has a great record as a doer, which I respect. He has a completely different vibe than Obama, who I would love to shoot hoops with. Romney seems like a Mormon Al Gore.

I really want to vote Republican in November – I believe in business and in an efficient, smaller government. The Social Conservatives scare me about as much as the Leftists and Greens.

So, as of June 1, 2012, I am officially on the fence for this election. Obama is weak but Romney has no vision and seems to lack commitment to a single set of political principles. He is against the health care legislation he fought for as Governor of Massachusetts.

Normally, I like gridlock in Washington, but the vicious partisan gridlock we have now is pernicious. We need a grand compromise on spending reductions, including the military budget, and shared pain on taxes. But neither guy nor party seems to have the guts or leadership to get us where we need to go.

I am waiting – probably right into November – to make up my mind. How about you?

Question: Is the United States better off today than it was four years ago?

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