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Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

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All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

First off, blessings to all the Louisianans affected by the flooding. We were just down there before the deluge and troubles began, having driven through areas of Baton Rouge and surrounding towns and parishes en route to Pam’s family reunion in New Orleans, During our Southern Fried Love Road Trip II – link to my diary of that experience at https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/ – we only got one whiff of the torrential rains that can fall there. As brief as our exposure was when caught in a blinding downpour on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, it was plenty enough to make us nervous. Can’t imagine living in areas so prone to flooding. But what I’m really sharing in this post are my gathering thoughts about the oppressive humidity of the Deep South. While in the midst of that sog and sap I couldn’t find words to do it justice, except a few choice curses. Not even for a time upon my return could I manage to describe it. Now that I have a semblance of my wits about me, I will try to articulate how all consuming it felt. I mean, I knew it would be hot and I thought I was prepared for what everyone told me would be a humidity unlike any I’d felt before, but I never imagined its thoroughly invasive properties. Every time I left AC environs for the outside my pores spontaneously opened to release at first a film and then a full cascade of sweat. It often felt as if I’d been caught in a storm. That none too comfortable sticky, clammy feeling is most unpleasant. It’s essentially walking around in damp clothes. i did find relief when infrequent breezes thankfully appeared to create natural air conditioning of the most refreshing kind.

 

 

After being subjected to that muggy climate I can see how the humidity itself may be enough to explain the origins of Southern Gothic literature with its hyperbole, histrionics, eccentrics, grotesqueries and magic realism. Then add to that voodoo, fundamentalism, evangelism, hellfire Baptist devotion, devout Catholicism, swamps, backwoods, plantations, chain gangs, football, jazz, blues, country and soul food, not to mention the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and you have the makings for high drama, combined with doses of the surreal and the supernatural. The stark rich-poor, urban-rural divide lends itself to tragicomedy. Just like the humidity, that rich broth of culture oozes out until it envelops you in a steam bath of pleasure and pain. Beads of sweat and drops of rain mark the spot. The myriad struggles and conflicts of that place find release in the grace of slow rhythms that the heavy, moist air seems to regulate. As a visitor, there is no mistaking you are in a Southern Realm or Southern State of Mind, and just to remind you that you’re far from home is that all pervasive, stifling veil of sodden heat you cannot deny or escape, except indoors.

Funny thing about that humidity is that as draining as it could be, it sure never dampened my appetite.

Then there’s an undeniable sultry quality to all the humidity down there. People wear fewer, lighter clothes down there and, well, you know…I swear I felt like going all Stanley Kowalski to my Stella, Pam, by stripping down to a T-shirt in the French Quarter and calling for her to come to me in her slip. Visions of high strung Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor characters and overwrought scenes and delusions of being a character in God’s Little Acre kept coming to mind. But that was the heat talking. Maybe that Rum and Coke, too. But just thinking and writing about the humidity now makes me breakout in a sweat, so give me another cold one and pass the pralines.

And somebody please hand me a fan – and a change of clothes. While you’re at it, if you have any of those battered, deep fried chicken livers we found at a roadside store, I’ll take me some of those, too. The key is to eat, drink and be merry and not let the humidity bog you down or bum you out. After all, when in the South, do as Southerners do.

Flashback to June 2015: Visiting Africa with Terence “Bud” Crawford

June 14, 2016 1 comment

Flashback to June 2015: Visiting Africa with Terence “Bud” Crawford

 

Leo Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford, in Africa

©by Leo Adam Biga

These are stories I wrote about my travels to Africa with boxing champ Terence “Bud’ Crawford. The pieces highlight various facets of the two-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda. The first is for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) and the second is for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

In June 2015 I traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with the help of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Our travel party of seven included two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha. I have been chronicling his rise to boxing prominence for four years and though he is a fighter through and through there is more to him than that. I have seen he has a real heart for his family and community as well as deep loyalty to those around him. He has single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown by fighting several title defenses here before huge crowds at the CenturyLink Center. He operates a gym that is a sanctuary for at-risk youth and young adults, providing them structured, positive activities that teach them lessons inside and outside the ring. Friends of Crawford have embarked on a major building campaign to renovate and expand the gym so that it can serve more people.

When I heard he had gone to Africa in August if 2014 I was intrigued. My interest grew when I learned he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, two developing nations that have endured much conflict, killing and deprivation. Then I learned the story behind why he went and whom he went with and that motivated me to want to accompany him on the 2015 trip he was making to those same countries. It turns out that in the summer of 2014 Bud and his former fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School in North O, Jamie Nollette, reconnected through social media. She congratulated him on all his success as a fighter and let him know how proud she is of him. When he learned what she does today as the founder and executive director of Pipeline Worldwide, a nonprofit that supports sustainability and self-sufficiency programs in Africa, he was fascinated to go to with her on her next trip.

For the African-American Crawford it was an opportunity to visit what he regards as the Motherland and to see how people there live. His first trip to Africa was indeed an awakening for him as he saw everything from people living in want and healing from trauma to people working regular jobs, going to market and living in comfortable housing. He visited villages and organizations that Pipeline Worldwide assists with funding to build fresh water wells and dormitories and to support programming that helps youth, women and families. He met survivors of civil war, abduction, abuse and genocide. He played with and comforted sick and orphaned children. He gave away lots of things. He also visited natural wonders.

I applied for and received the Andy Award grant from UNO to fund my way to Africa with Crawford, Nollette and four others for the June 1-12, 2015 journey. Our travel party saw everything described above and more. I was there to observe and report on it all. It was my first trip outside the United States and so it was naturally an awakening for me, too.

We met African, American and European program directors, educators, aid workers and humanitarians. We met survivors and perpetrators of violence. Crawford was feted as a visiting prince by sports officials who organized a press conference he handled with aplomb. We spent part of our time in urban centers and part of our time in rural areas. We shopped at open air markets and enclosed malls. We were treated to great hospitality wherever we went and we sampled all manner of the local cultures in the food and fashion and in the dance and music we were exposed to. We also did some service work at one stop. We went on safari and a gorilla trek. All in all, the two weeks added up to an eye opening experience that none of us will soon forget.

From a journalistic perspective, it was a challenge seeing so much in such a short time and capturing as much of it as possible. In my reporting I tried to be as faithful to the experience as time and space limitations allowed. The project did confirm what prompted me to go in the first place – that you should follow your instincts as a reporter and that you should stretch yourself beyond your routine comfort zones. I know I have grown as a result of the experience even if I can’t yet articulate how.

One of the takeaways from it all is that there are many Africans and non-Africans alike working hard to improve conditions and raise quality of life in the countries we visited. While I often felt like a tourist who was only glimpsing small aspects of life there at any given time, I do feel the totality of the journey gave me at least a rough appreciation for how people live.

And, as expected, traveling for two weeks with Crawford gave me new insights into him. I also developed a deeper appreciation for what Nollette and her Pipeline Worldwide does. If anything, the relationship between Crawford and Nollette has grown through their travels together. He helps bring awareness to her Pipeline Worldwide and the programs and projects it supports and she is helping lead the campaign to renovate and expand his B&B Boxing Academy.

There is another dynamic about the trip I made with them that is important to note. Six of the seven in the travel party are from Omaha. Four of us had never been to Africa before and in fact had done little or no travel abroad. Certainly our awareness of conditions, challenges and opportunities in those African nations was greatly increased by that experience and exposure. Eever since coming back I have been writing and presenting about the trip.

AFRICA TALES IN IMAGES
Here is a link to a video slideshow of the June trip I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with The Champ.

The visuals were edited, set to music, given movement and in some cases captioned by my friend Victoria White, an Omaha filmmaker.

NOTE: I am available to make public presentations about the trip.

BTW: My blog, leoadambiga.com, features many other stories I’ve written about Crawford.

 

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The Champ Goes to Africa

Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

Two-time world boxing champ Terence Crawford of Omaha has the means to do anything he wants. You might not expect then that in the space of less than a year he chose to travel not once but twice to a pair of developing nations in Africa wracked by poverty, infrastructure problems and atrocity scars: Uganda and Rwanda, I accompanied his last trip as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Until now I’ve posted a little about the grant that took me to Africa along with a few pictures and anecdotes from the trip. But now I’m sharing the first in a collection of stories I’m writing about the experience, which is of course why I went there in fhe first place. This cover story in the coming July issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) emphasizes Crawford within the larger context of what he and the rest of us saw, who we met and what we did. Future pieces for other publications will go even more into where his Africa sojourns fit into his evolving story as a person and as an athlete. But at least one of my upcoming stories from the trip will try to convey the totality of the experience from my point of view and that of others. I feel privilged to have been given the opportunity to chronicle this journey. Look for new posts and updates and announcements related to this and future stories from my Africa Tales series.

 

 

 

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(Below is a text-only format of the same article)

The Champ Goes to Africa

Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally  appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE:
Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford.

Expanding his vision
Terence “Bud” Crawford’s rise to world boxing stardom reads more graphic novel than storybook, defying inner city odds to become one of the state’s most decorated athletes. Not since Bob Gibson ruled the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s has a Nebraskan so dominated his sport.

When Bud overheard me say he might be the best fighter pound-for-pound Neb.’s produced, he took offense:. “Might be? I AM the best.”

En route to perhaps being his sport’s next marquee name, he’s done remarkable things in improbable places. His ascent to greatness began with a 2013 upset of Breidis Prescott in Las Vegas, In early 2014 he captured the WBO lightweight title in Glasgow, Scotland. He personally put Omaha back on the boxing map by twice defending that title in his hometown before huge CenturyLink Center crowds last year.

In between those successful defenses he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in August. He went with Pipeline Worldwide co-founder Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native and Bud’s fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School. After reuniting in mid-2014, he expressed interest going to Africa, where her charitable organization works with partners to drill water wells and to support youth-women’s programs.

When I caught up with The Champ last fall, he left no doubt the impact that first trip made.

“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and help people,” he says.

Nollette recalls, “When Terence left he had an empty suitcase. He left all his clothes, except what he was wearing, to a bus driver.”

“I just felt they needed it more than I did,” he says. ‘I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Seeing first-hand profound poverty, infrastructure gaps and atrocity scars made an impression.

“Well, it just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t in my life experienced anything of the nature they’re experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don’t have clean water. That’s one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it. They appreciate everything, even if it’s just a hug or a handshake.”

Simpatico and reciprocal
Nollette says the trips and fundraisers she organizes raise awareness and attract donors.

Only weeks after winning the vacant WBO light welterweight title over Thomas Dulorme in Arlington, Texas last April Bud returned to those same African nations with Nollette.

“I told Jamie I would like to go back.”

He says locals told him, “We have a lot of people that come and tell us they’re going to come back and never do. For you to come back means a lot to us.”

“Just the little things mean a lot to people with so little, and so I guess that’s why I’m here,” Bud told an assembly of Ugandans in June.

None of this may have happened if he and Nollettte didn’t reconnect. Their bond transcends his black urban and her white suburban background. He supports Pipeline’s work and she raises funds for his B&B Boxing Academy in North O.

His first Africa trip never made the news because he didn’t publicize it. His June 1 through 12 trip is a different matter.

What about Africa drew this streetwise athlete to go twice in 10 months when so much is coming at him in terms of requests and appearances, on top of training and family obligations?

Beyond the cool machismo, he has a sweet, soft side and burning curiosity. “He really listens to what people say,” Nollette notes. “He wants to understand things.”

His pensive nature gets overshadowed by his mischievous teasing, incessant horseplay and coarse language.

This father of four is easy around children, who gravitate to him. He supports anything, here or in Africa, that gets youth off the streets.

He gives money to family, friends, homies and complete strangers. In 2014 he so bonded with Pipeline’s Uganda guide, Apollo Karaguba, that he flew him to America to watch his Nov. fight in Omaha.

“When I met Apollo I felt like I’ve been knowing him for years. I just liked the vibe I got. He’s a nice guy, he’s caring. He took real good care of us while we were out there.”

Bud says paying his way “was my turn to show him my heart.”

He respects Nollette enough he let her form an advisory committee for his business affairs as his fame and fortune grow.

Even with a lifelong desire to see “the motherland” and a fascination with African wildlife, it took Nollette reentering his life for him to go.

“Certain opportunities don’t come every day. She goes all the time and I trust her.”

His fondness for her goes back to when they were at Skinner. “She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me.”

He needed empathy, he says, because “I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder.” He says she took the time to find out why he acted out.

Catching the vision
Boxing eventually superseded school.

“I used to fall asleep studying boxing.”

Meanwhile, Nollette moved to Phoenix. On a 2007 church mission trip to Uganda she found her calling to do service there.

“It really impacted me,” she says. “I’ve always had a heart for kids and
I always had an interest in Africa.”

She went several times.

“There’s not really anything that can prepare you for it. The volume of people. The overwhelming poverty. Driving for hours and seeing all the want. I didn’t know what possibly could be done because everything seemed so daunting.

“But once I had a chance to go into some villages I started to see things that gave me hope. I was absolutely amazed at the generosity and spirit of these people – their hospitality and kindness, their gratitude. You go there expecting to serve and after you’re there you walk away feeling like you’ve been given a lot more. I was hooked.”

Bud got hooked, too, or as ex-pats say in Africa, “caught the vision.”

“I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”

Coming to Africa i: 
Uganda
For this second trip via KLM Delta he brought girlfriend Alindra “Esha” Person, who’s the mother of his children. Joseph Sutter of Omaha and myself tagged along, Julia Brown of Phoenix joined us in Detroit and Scott Katskee, a native Omahan living in Los Angeles, added to our ranks in Amsterdam. Nollette arrived in Uganda a day early and met us in Entebbe, where Bud and Apollo enjoyed a warm reunion.

The next seven days in Uganda, which endured civil war only a decade ago, were a blur made foggier by jet lag and itinerary overload. Dividing our time between Kampala and rural areas we saw much.

Roadside shanties. Open market vendors. Christian schools, clinics, worship places. Vast, wild, lush open landscapes. Every shade of green vegetation contrasted with red dirt and blue-white-orange skies. Immense Lake Victoria. Crossing the storied Nile by bridge and boat.

The press of people. Folks variously balancing fruit or other items on their head. Unregulated, congested street traffic. Everything open overnight. Boda bodas (motor bikes) jutting amid cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians. One morning our group, sans me, rode aback boda bodas just for the thrill. I suggested to Bud Top Rank wouldn’t like him risking injury, and he bristled, “I run my life, you feel me? Ain’t nobody tell me what to do, nobody. Not even my mom or my dad.”

Ubiquitous Jerry cans – plastic yellow motor oil containers reused to carry and store water – carted by men, women, children, sometimes in long queues. “All waiting on water, that’s crazy,” Bud commented.

Stark contrasts of open slums and gated communities near each other. Mud huts with thatched roofs in the bush.

Long drives on unpaved roads rattled our bodies and mini-bus.

Whenever delays occurred it reminded us schedules don’t mean much there. Bud calls it TIA (This is Africa). “Just live in the moment…go with the flow,” he advised.

In a country where development’s piecemeal, Apollo says, “We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere.”

Africans engaged in social action say they’ve all overcome struggles to raise themselves and their countrymen. “I was one of the lucky few to get out (of the slums),” Apollo says. They want partners from the developed world, but not at the expense of autonomy.

Many good works there are done by faith-based groups. Apollo works for Watoto Child Care Ministries, whose campus we toured. Three resident boys close to Nollette bonded with Bud on his last trip. The boys joined us for dinner one night.

We spent a day with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose vocational work with exploited females has won acclaim. Last year Nollette produced a video showing Bud training Sister for a mock fight with Stephen Colbert. This time, Nollette, Bud and Co. outfitted a dormitory for her girls in Atiak, where Pipeline built a well. Bud played music the girls danced to. They honored us with a traditional dinner and dance.

We toured Pastor Ben Kibumba’s Come Let’s Dance (CLD) community development organization. Bud and others gave out jerseys to kids.

Nakavuma Mercy directs CLD’s Thread of Life empowerment program for single moms in Kampala’s Katanga slum.

We met Patricia at Bless a Child, which serves cancer-stricken kids in Kampala, and Moses, who’s opening a second site in Gulu. We met young entrepreneurs Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira, whose Connect Enterprise and Chicken City Farms, respectively, are part of a creative class Pipeline partners with.

“One of the things I see is that you have a lot of young people with strong leadership skills and I want to be able to come alongside them and support them in their efforts,” Nollette says.

Apollo says Uganda needs new leadership that’s corruption-free and focused on good resource stewardship.

Nollette says she offers “a pipeline to connect people in the States with opportunities and projects in Africa that are really trying to make a difference in their communities.”

It’s all about leveraging relationships and expertise for maximum affect.

We met ex-pats living and work there: Todd Ellingson with City of Joy and Maggie Josiah with African Hospitality Institute.

Josiah offered this advice:

“A lot of times, especially we Americans come over thinking we have all the answers and we know how to fix all the problems, and really we don’t need to fix any of the African problems. They will fix them themselves in their own time. But come over and listen and learn from them. The Africans have so much to teach us about joy when we have very little, they have so much to teach us about what it really means to live in community, what it means to live the abundant life…”

Hail, hail, The Champ is here
Having a world champ visit proved a big deal to Ugandans, who take their boxing seriously. The nation’s sports ministry feted Bud like visiting royalty at a meeting and press conference. He gained extra cred revealing he’s friends with two Ugandan fighters in the U.S., Ismail Muwendo and Sharif Bogere.

“I want to come back with Ismail.”

Ministry official Mindra Celestino appealed to Bud “to be our ambassador for Uganda.” Celestino listed a litany of needs.

“Whatever I can do to help, I’d like to help out,” Bud said. “I’m currently helping out Ismail. He fought on the undercard of my last fight. We’re building him up.”

Bud won over officials, media and boxers with his honesty and generosity, signing t-shits and gloves, posing for pics, sharing his highlight video and delivering an inspirational message.

“For me coming up was kind of hard. You’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs, you’ve got violence. I got into a lot of things and I just felt like boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity. I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.

“I had a lot of days I wanted to quit. For you boxers out there this ain’t no easy sport. It’s hard, taking those punches. You might be in the best shape of your life, but mentally if you’re not in shape you’re going to break down.”

He emphasized how much work it takes to be great.

“Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”

He referred to the passion, discipline and motivation necessary to carry you past exhaustion or complacency.

“There’s going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you’ve got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”

We did take time out to enjoy the outdoors, hiking to the top of Murchison Falls and going on safari at Paraa game preserve. I brought up the rear on the hike and Bud hung back to encourage me: “I’ve got you, Leo…you can do it.” On safari his fondest wish of seeing big cats was fulfilled when we came across two lion prides. He earlier spotted a rare leopard perched on a cliff.

Into Africa II:
Rwanda
Uganda still swam in our heads after flying into Kigali, Rwanda, a city less teeming than Kampala. Despite only a generation removed from genocide, urban Rwanda’s more developed than Uganda. There are even some street lights and stop signs, plus more Western-style construction. In the rural reaches, it’s a sprawling complex of hills and valleys unlike Uganda’s flatlands.

Our guide, Christophe Mbonyingabo, reunited with Bud at the airport.

Just as Bud was mistaken for Ugandan, Rwandans mistook him for one of theirs, too. He delighted in it, especially when residents tried engaging him in their language and he begged off, “I’m American.”

In both countries, access to clean water is a daily challenge.

“Whether you’re passionate about women or children or health or education, once a village gets access to clean drinking water, this very basic need, it just changes everything,” says Nollette. “If a village gets a well it all of a sudden gets a school, a clinic, some agriculture.”

We met young men hoping to make a difference when they complete their U.S. studies. Another, Olivier, lost his entire family in the genocide but has gone on to become a physician.

As Bud put it, we were “happy to meet new friends, new faces.”

Like the work Apollo does in Uganda, Christophe works to heal people in Rwanda. The eastern Congo native needed healing himself after losing his father and two brothers to violence there. He credits being spiritually saved with his founding CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance), which counsels genocide survivors and perpetrators to find forgiveness. We met a man and woman – he was complicit in her husband’s murder and stole from her – who’ve come to a serene coexistence. They now share a cow.

All of us expressed awe at this turning-the-other-cheek model.

“They love each other, too, that’s the crazy part,” says Bud, though Christophe said not every survivor forgives and not every perpetrator makes amends.

Bud summed it up with, “Life’s about choices.”

We met a survivor widow for whom Pipeline’s building a new home.

Bud caught up with two boys he met last year. He nearly caused a riot when the gifts he gave and the backflips he performed were spent and a crowd of kids clamored for more.

On the drive into the hills, the stunning vistas resembled Calif. or Mediterranean wine country. It’s a sensory explosion of nature’s verdant, colorful abundance and folks plodding the roadsides on foot and bike, selling wares, hauling bundles, Jerry cans,. you name it.

Upon hiking into a pygmy village, a young woman, Agnes, impressed on us residents’ extreme poverty. Their subsistence living and limited water source pose problems. She shared aspirations to finish school. The villagers danced for us. Our group returned the favor. Then Scott Katskee played Pharrell’s “Happy” and everyone got jiggy.

Seeing so much disparity, Bud observed. “Money can’t make you happy, but it can make you comfortable.”

A sobering experience came at the genocide memorial in Kigali, where brutal killings of unimaginable scale are graphically documented.

Group dynamics and shooting the bull
The bleakness we sometimes glimpsed was counteracted by fun, whether playing with children or giving away things. Music helped. At various junctures, different members of our group acted as the bus DJ. Bud played a mix of hip hop and rap but proved he also knows old-school soul and R&B, though singing’s definitely not a second career. Photography may be, as he showed a flair for taking stills and videos.

In this device-dependent bunch, much time was spent texting, posting and finding wi-fi and hot spot connections.

On the many long hauls by bus or land cruiser, conversation ranged from music to movies to gun control to wildlife to sports. Apparel entrepreneur Scott Katskee entertained us with tales of China and southeast Asia travel and friendships with noted athletes and actors.

Bud gave insight into a tell Thomas Dulorme revealed at the weigh-in of their April fight.

“When you’re that close you can feel the tension. I could see it in his face. He was trying too hard. If you’re trying too hard you’re nervous. If he’s intimidated that means he’s more worried about me than I am about him. I won it right there.”

Our group made a gorilla trek, minus me. Even Bud said it was “hard” trudging uphill in mud and through thick brush. He rated “chilling with the gorillas” his “number one” highlight, though there were anxious moments. He got within arm’s reach of a baby gorilla only to have the mama cross her arms and grunt. “That’s when I was like, OK, I better back off.” A silverback charged.

Back home, Bud’s fond of fishing and driving fast. He has a collection of vehicles and (legal) firearms. He and Esha feel blessed the mixed northwest Omaha neighborhood they live in has welcomed them.

Nollette correctly predicted we’d “become a little family and get to know each other really well.” She was our mother, chaperone, referee and teacher. Her cousin Joseph Sutter, an athlete, became like a little brother to Bud, whom he already idolized. When the pair wrestled or sparred she warned them to take it easy.

“Stop babying him,” Bud said. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’m just going to rough him up. You know how boys play.”

Like all great athletes Bud’s hyper competitive – “I don’t like to lose at nothing,” he said – and he didn’t like getting taken down by Suetter.

Once, when Bud got testy with Nollette. Christophe chastised him, “I hope you remember she’s your teacher.” Bud played peacemaker when things got tense, saying, “Can’t we all get along? We’re supposed to be a family.” We were and he was a big reason why. “What would y’all do without me? I’m the life of the party,” he boasted.

Out of Africa…for now
As The Champ matures, there’s no telling where he’ll wind up next, though Africa’s a safe bet. When I mentioned he feels at home there, he said, “It IS home. I’m AFRICAN-American. It’s where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place. I’m just thankful I’m able to do the things I’m able to do. I can help people and it fills my heart.”

Our last night in Africa Christophe and Nollette implored us not to forget what we’d seen. Fat chance.

Recapping the journey, Bud said, “That was tight.”

Bud may next fight in Oct. or Feb., likely in Omaha again.

_ _ _

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

June 1, 2016 4 comments

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

©by Leo Adam Biga

Just got back mid-evening on Memorial Day from a one-week family road trip down South. We were two mixed race couples of different generations heading down to Dixieland. Beaufield Berry and Rob Fisher, plus their baby Shine along for the ride. Then there was Pamela Jo Berry (Beau’s mother) and myself. Pam and I rode shotgun with the baby while Rob and Beau took turns driving. Eight days and a couple thousand miles of travel is a lot for anyone, especially a 21-month old, but Shine was a remarkable trouper.

Our happy band of travelers pit-stopped in Kansas City to board a dog before wending our way in a southernly direction to our vacation’s first real destination, St. Louis. We toured the St. Louis Art Museum and the new National Blues Museum. The first rates 4-stars and the second 3-stars. Some in our party did the City Museum downtown. The single most impressive thing we did and viewed was tour the St. Louis Basilica a truly magnificent sacred structure that left us in a state of awe. I know, not exactly a fun thing to do, but meaningful and impactful, Immersed in that wonder. I swear that my soul stirred and my vision expanded.

Civil Rights Museum.
“I can’t explain how it feels to be here. I have goosebumps the whole time. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m grateful…this is a must see. You HAVE to come here. They start at Africa and walk you all the way through.” –Beau

 

Lorraine Motel - National Civil Rights Museum

Lorraine Motel – National Civil Rights Museum

Graceland. ❤️❤️❤️‪#‎bucketlistchecked‬  – Beau

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“They ain’t playin with these collard greens down here.” – Beau

Enjoyed a great meal at Mango Peruvian Restaurant. The biggest impression we left with was how St. Louis, just like our Midwestern sister cities Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis and our Western sister city Denver, all have monumental public spaces. both indoors and outdoors, that Omaha sadly lacks. Those cities also retain much more of their historic buildings than Omaha and so the quality and the character of their architecture is much more compelling than what we have left. Our travel party of four adults and a not quite 2 year old comfortably shared a Residence Inn suite. Our shuttle drivers were ambiable men who gave us a few godo tips on where to go and what to do.

Memphis was next among our bucket list destinations and its mega attractions of Graceland and the civil Rights Museum provided two vastly distinct history experiences. Each in its own way and for its own attributes rates 5 stars. Graceland offers more than what any of us expected in terms of personalizing Elvis and his place in the collective popular culture consciousness. The Civil Rights Museum sensitively and intelligently blends the preserved Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated with a surrounding museum. The extensive exhibits walk you through the legacy of slavery from pre-colonial times all the way through to the Emancipation Proclamation and its messy aftermath. It informs you of the earliest efforts for equal rights that culminated in the modern civil rights movement. It takes you through the birth of that movement and King’s rise within it. It places you as well as any exhibit possibly could right in the thick of the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.

Beale Street proved surprisingly short but we consumed some mouth watering and flavorful food there, including a killer gumbo and some righteous greens and cornbread, and we caught some down home blues thanks to the Queen of Beale Street, Miss Ruby Wilson. Our waiter at B.B. King’s restaurant was a gregarious ambassador for the charms of Memphis, We stayed at an AirBnB-found private home in a quiet Country Club-like neighborhood. It was a spacious, comfy, unpretentious family dwelling with a great big old covered patio and deck we meant to do a grill out on but never quite got around to. If felt like a home away from home. The drive out of Memphis gave us a thrilling view between the Bass Pro Shops’ pyramid headquarters and the steel arched Hernando de Soto Bridge spanning a picturesque segment of the Mississippi River.
The only things I was sorry we didn’t make time for were tours of the legendary Sun and Stax Records.

 

Branson

-Branson MO Strip, Branson Attractions!:

 

Christ of the Ozarks ‪#‎eurekasprings‬

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We were to have continued south to Nashville, where we planned to do the Grand Ole Opry and some music studios, but our accommodations got double booked in a major AirBnB snafu. So in classic improv fashion we double backed and spent our last few nights on a lakefront condo between Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. It made for a nice Plan B compromise getaway within the larger getaway. Eureka Springs was a delightful surprise to us for its rich mix of historic buildings, eclectic architecture and hippie trippy vibe meets redneck kitsch. We were surprised too by the hilly, rocky terrain of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri that alternated with lush forests and big beautiful valleys. Saw far more Confederate flags and references to Dixie than we spied in Tennessee. As two mixed race couples down South we never felt uncomfortable, though the sight of those old wound symbols was a bit upsetting. But everybody we met, with very few exceptions, was friendly and inviting. Branson was far less visually and aesthetically pleasing than Eureka Springs, but in all fairness we only drove through its main strip or drag with all the theaters and shows. Our stroll time there was limited to another section of town devoted to shops and eateries. We mean to go back one day to take in some of those iconic Branson attractions.

Staying on that lake provided a tranquil respite to all the ferrying around from point to point. The only harrowing part of the whole trip was driving at night on dim-lit winding roads from Memphis to Eureka Springs. The weather the whole time we were away was moderate with plenty of sunshine and some stunning skyscapes and sunsets for good measure. The only inclement encountered happened on the return jaunt home between K.C., where we retrieved the dog, and Omaha, when we drove through a storm cell that kept opening up on us. Adding to the excitement of heading home was Beau, who is a playwright, fretting if she’d make it home in time for a 7:30 p.m reading compilation of some of her new work at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Construction delays and storm surges worked against us before the road and the sky finally cleared and she made it back with plenty of time to spare.

 

Beau, Rob and Shine

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All in all, a good, positive, fun-filled bonding time and adventure shared by people who love each other. A much needed break from the grinding routine and rut. Thank you Beau for planning such a cool gypsy experience and for expertly changing things on the fly the few times when plans did go awry. You did a great job with the accommodations and making sure we all saw and did things that touched our hearts and expanded our minds. Thank you Rob for being our steadfast main driver and all around leavening agent with your good sense and humor. Thank you Shine for being the joyful life spirit who engenders love and trust. Thank you Pamela for being the Queen Earth Mother whose serene example of going with the flow became our team mantra. Thank you God for fending off the panic attack-like freakouts that have spoiled some of my travels. This was all good and easy going down,  just like a Southern Fried Chicken dinner smothered in homemade peppered gravy. A real Pot Liquor-rich flavored, stick-to-the-ribs good time.

 

My Journey to Africa with The Champ: Free Talk & Video Slideshow

December 7, 2015 2 comments

AFRICA TALES
6 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 8 @ Church of the Resurrection
3004 Belvedere Blvd.
I will be presenting about the June reportng mission I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa that The Champ Terence Crawford was on and that his former teacher Jamie Fox Nollette led. I will share lots of pictures from the experience. All are welcome. Free.

 

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Omaha couple unofficial ambassadors for Ghana, West Africa

October 13, 2015 3 comments

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sam and martine ghana independence 2015

Omaha couple unofficial ambassadors for Ghana, West Africa

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the Omaha Star

Omaha couple Martine and Sam Quartey’s passion for Ghana finds them promoting aspects of that West African nation through various cultural, commercial and charitable activities. One of their activities is an every-other-year group trip they lead to Ghana, where Sam was born and raised. They organize the trip via their own S&M Tours. The next tour is scheduled December 20-31. Reservations are closed.

They call their tours Back to Our Roots – A Journey to the Motherland. This time around the couple will take a travel party of eight to see various sights in and around the capital city of Accra and the country’s next largest city Kumasi. Among the historical spots they will visit are some of Ghana’s coastal slave castles where thousands of Africans were detained against their will bound for slave trade ships making The Passage to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Sam Quartey, who works as an automotive mechanic, said it’s not unusual to see visitors cry upon touring the slave castles. “It’s a big story and very emotional,” he said.

Martine Quartey said she found herself “overwhelmed” by the experience.

With its southern border situated on the Atlantic Ocean, Ghana today is a tourist magnet with stunning beachside resorts and history-laden landscapes. Rich in mineral deposits and in cocoa production, the country is more developed than many first time visitors expect.

The December tour will be the fourth the couple’s led to Ghana. They enjoy introducing travelers to a continent and a nation they feel has much more to offer than many realize.

“There’s a lot to see – the beautiful scenery, the vivid colors and bold patterns of the clothing, the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, the bustling markets, the highly developed cities,” Martine said. “There’s also the painful history of slavery and colonization and the successful bid for independence.

“We invite people to take the journey with us, to cross those bridges and cultural boundaries to experience something they don’t expect to find.”

 
accra beach - sam and martine

Ghana, like all of Africa, is known for the warm hospitality of its people. Americans are well-received, Martine said, but for African-Americans it truly is a heritage homecoming with deep currents.

“Because we are of our ancestors, we are returning in a sense and Ghanians greets us by saying, ‘Welcome back my sister, welcome back my brother.’ It’s so beautiful to hear that because finally you feel like you’re at home.”

Ever since she met Sam she has been fascinated with his homeland and she has developed an appreciation for its food and fashion, among other things. She and Sam often dress in Ghana attire and he cooks many traditional dishes. He is president of the Ghana Friendship Association of Nebraska (http://www.ghanafan.org/). The organization holds events that keep alive traditional culture for Ghanians living here, it helps new arrivals from Ghana adjust to American life and it supports schools and clinics in Ghana.

Martine made her first trip to Ghana in 2011, a year after the couple married. Whenever the couple go they bring back authentic garments and accessories as well as natural bath and beauty products because they and Omaha’s resident African community crave such hard to find items here. There is also high demand by local African-Americans for Ghana-ware and incidentals.

Requests for these goods got so frequent the Quarteys saw a business opportunity. Thus, they opened their S&M African Boutique in August. The small store at 6058 Ames Ave. features a surprisingly large array of fashion, bags, jewelry, art, fragrances, oils and shea butter products.

“The boutique is kind of birthed out of feedback we were getting from friends and family” to have these things year-round,” Martine said.

S&M African Boutique is open only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit https://www.facebook.com/SandMAfricanBoutique.

The Quarteys have also formed the Pokuase Promise Project Initiative to support a school they adopted in the village of Pokuase. Sam’s grandfather settled the village. Sam’s father and uncle followed as village leaders. In a spirit of giving back, the couple collect donated supplies (books, computers, markers) they variously ship or personally deliver to the school serviing elementary through senior high students.

To consolidate their school assistance efforts, the couple are building an International Headquarters house in nearby Accra. It will have ground floor storage bays for supplies and a second story private residence. When in Ghana the Quarteys will stay and operate the Pokuase Project from there. They hope to have someone run the Project in country when they are back in the States.

The International House also represents Sam fulfilling a commitment he made to his late mother. The family owns the land the house is being constructed on and Sam’s mother made him promise to do something of substance on it.

“I told my wife about it and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s honor her wishes,’ so we started the project,” Sam said.
His dream is to build a library for the school and dedicate it to the man responsible for him coming to America, the late Bishop William Henry Foeman, who was a much revered and recognized foreign missionary. Sam and his oldest son lived for a time with Foeman, who came to Omaha to pastor Mount Calvary Community Church, where Sam is still a member today.

Working with the school is meaningful to Martine, an education professional. She is an administrative assistant in the Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent’s office and a part-time adult education instructor at Metropolitan Community College.

The Quarteys’ Ghana work is borne of a love that keeps expanding.

“It’s a beautiful thing because it’s blossomed,” Martine said, “and it’s all connected. We have our trips, we have our boutique and we have the school.”

There is also the blog she writes, “Follow My Braids, I Love Ghana, West Africa” at https://followmybraids.wordpress.com/.

The couple are available to speak about Ghana to media and groups.

They will soon be taking reservations for a late fall 2017 trip to Ghana.

For more information, call 402-972-0557.

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Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park & Mausoleum (1st president of Ghana)
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   Independence Square (contains monuments such as the arch, Black Star Gate, and the Liberation Day Monument)
047   Independence Arch (a part of the Independence Square – represents Ghana’s struggle for independence from Great Britain)

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

May 11, 2010 5 comments

"Slammin" Sammy Sosa at bat for the ...

Image via Wikipedia

With baseball season approaching, I’m digging into my archives for some national pastime stories I’ve done over the years with a decided Omaha flavor. Look for articles in the coming days and weeks related to Rosenblatt Stadium, the College World Series, the Negro Leagues Museum and such baseball icons as Buck O’Neil and Bob Gibson. I will also be posting stories I wrote about some local softball superstars. Here is a Midwest Baseball Diary piece I wrote based on a week-long, multi-state baseball tour of the Midwest I took with a group of Nebraskans and Iowans in the Year of the Home Run.

The 1998 Major League Baseball season became known as the Year of the Home Run for the dual chase of the Roger Maris single season HR record that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire enagaged in. That same summer I joined a group of Nebraskans and Iowans for a Midwest baseball tour that was actually part of a class about baseball and culture offered by Iowa Western Community College. The two young profs who taught the course were both baseball nuts and a few dozen similarly inclined folks spent a week on the road by bus to take in several big league and minor league games as well as baseball museums and shrines in four states. This is my embedded, immersive, first-person recounting of that trip and the many experiences we enjoyed on it. The story originally appeared in The Reader.

HERE IS HOW I ORIGINALLY SET UP THE STORY:

My lukewarm feeling about baseball got raised to a high fever the summer of 1998 because of an assignment I did that found me joining a baseball tour of the Midwest with some two dozen die-hard fans.  The tour was actually offered as part of a local community college class looking at baseball in the context of popular culture.  It was a good if exhausting experience that I may repeat one day.

The thing that sold me on the trip is that it coincided with the great home run race that season between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom was chasing the single season record of Roger Maris.  The fact that two star players involved in history were on two of the teams that we would be seeing play, in their home ballparks no less, was enough to convince me the timing was right.  That and the fact that I felt a bit stale by then with my usual story projects.  This would be something different, something away from my home base of Omaha, something that would push me out of my comfort zone.

I was happy with the results of the trip and with the story I wrote about it.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…”
Jacques Barzun, French-born historian

Hearts and Minds

An overcast Sunday afternoon last summer found me joining 22 other pilgrims at Iowa Western Community College for the start of an eight day bus journey (July 26-August 2) exploring America via its most cherished game — baseball. As part of IWCC’s first “Baseball and American Culture” class/tour, we made a Midwest circuit of professional ball, attending games, visiting archives and speaking with players and officials, past and present.

Synergy was on our side too as, in the Year of the Home Run, we saw the two men chasing Roger Maris’ single season record in action.

Before departing we filed inside a lecture hall for an orientation by class instructors John Shorey and Bill Ricketts, young professors with the shaggy good looks of sandlot bums. In the spirit of the class, Shorey, a Cubs fan, and Ricketts, a Mets fan, showed their team colors. They laid-out the groundrules for the tour and had Creighton University professor and baseball author, Jerry Clark, steel us with diamond lore.

“Baseball is America’s game,” Clark told us. “There are those who feel this is no longer true. With things like players’ strikes and runaway salaries souring a lot of fans and sportswriters, some have been predicting the demise of baseball. Its demise has been forecast before. But baseball has always bounced back. It survived the Black Sox Scandal, the talent drain in World War II, the coming of TV. Now, we’re seeing a new resurgence of fans, fresh talent and new ballparks. What’s THE story in sports this year? Mark McGwire. He’s a folk hero. I envy you guys.”

Why follow the baseball muse down Mid-American byways? For me, it was about discovering what this game, that looms so large in the collective American conscience, means to people. These diaries are a compendium of what my fellow travelers and I found on our 1,700-mile journey. The result is a road story winding through the very heart of baseball and America.

Day One — On the Road

We look like any other tour group in our assorted ball caps, T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, shades and cameras. Our ranks range from die-hard fans (mainly Cubs rooters) to casual followers. The youngest aboard is 18, the oldest 65. Most squarely fit the demographics of baseball fans: white middle class Baby Boomers with disposable income to burn. Among our ranks are teachers, coaches, professionals, retirees. Most hail from Iowa. The rest from Nebraska. Eight days of total baseball immersion await us.

“Our traveling class,” as Ricketts calls it, finally hits the road at 3:30, bound for Kansas City. Hauling ass south on I-29, the Grant Wood Iowa landscape sweeps by in flat green and gold-speckled corn-row swatches. Marshy fields and roadsides are evidence of recent flooding along this bottomland. Traffic grows heavier the farther south we go, the undulating landscape taking on Thomas Hart Benton dimensions, spilling over itself like a wind-swept ribbon of earth. We arrive, just before dusk, at the Holiday Inn Sports Complex across from Kauffman Stadium. That night, a group of us descend on the sports bar off the lobby for some grub and get-to-know-you gab.

John Hazel of Omaha sports the full brush mustache, slicked-back hair, middle-age paunch, seasoned insight and avuncular ease of an old-time manager. His soulful eyes reveal hard times (He’s a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol counselor at St. Gabriel’s). His wiseguy voice betrays his Chicago roots. This lifelong student-of-the-game and Cubs fan is soon my personal guru on tour. Always ready to talk baseball, he explains what makes the game so special.

“Baseball is very unique in that there’s no time limit. A game can go on forever. It’s a team sport that’s built on individualism. There’s nothing like the one-on-one confrontation of pitcher and batter in any other sport. And there’s so much going on on any given play. There’s always something new, always something unexpected. In most sports you control the ball to score points. In baseball, the other team controls the ball while you try to score runs. It can be as cerebral as you want. It can be as basic as you want. It’s different things to different people.”

Speaking of differences, we’ll view baseball through the prism of the black experience, followed by the Royals-Anaheim Angels game tomorrow.

Day Two –The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Setting out this morning we cross the George Brett overpass and traverse age-old racial lines en route to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the epicenter of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historic district, a traditional hub of black commerce and culture in the midst of a revival.

We pass the Holy Ghost New Testament Church, whose sign out front implores passersby “Don’t Give Up!” As we pull up to the baseball museum, which shares the same building as the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the area’s renaissance is apparent in the glut of nearby restaurants, clubs and theaters, which stand silent this early in the day. Lamp post banners proclaim “The Legacy Plays On,” no doubt referring to the legends honored inside and displayed in life-size neon cutout figures above the entrance.

We’re led into a small screening room with bleacher-style seating and watch a short film on the Negro Leagues. Later, we tour the museum’s vibrant exhibits, which give a fine sense for the dynamic flavor of black baseball and the heady impact it had on many communities. But the real treat is meeting Negro Leagues veteran Henry “Pistol” Mason, who still cuts a trim figure in his 60s. With the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher (He is a United Methodist minister today.) the former hard-throwing pitcher recalls breaking in with the Kansas City Monarchs . “I dreamed of being in the Negro Leagues. I came up by bus to Kansas City in 1951 from my hometown in Marshall, MO to try out. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.” Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, his strong right arm so impressed player-manager Buck O’Neil he was signed on the spot.

Mason toiled with the team during the 1951, 1952 and 1954 seasons, earning $250 a month. After their some 100-game regular season, Negro Leaguers like Mason went barnstorming in the off-season. Then, he says, it was all about “the love of playing baseball.” And wowing the crowd.

“We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. The fans enjoyed the game. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too. We wanted to prove we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”

The then recent emergence of black players in organized ball gave new hope. “It meant that maybe, just maybe someday I could be signing a major league contract, and that dream came true when I signed my first contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.” In the Phillies minor league system he played for the Miami Marlins, with the legendary Satchel Paige as a teammate, and for the Schenectady Blue Jays. Off-seasons he earned big bucks playing south of the border. Back home, he endured racism.

“When we sent to spring training in Clearwater, Florida we couldn’t stay in the hotels. I was the only black baseball player in Schenectady. I ran into some difficulties there. When I walked into the clubhouse the first time I could just feel the tension. But you learned not to shoot your mouth off and to let your ability do your talking for you, and that’s what I did.”

Mason finally made it to The Show in 1958, recording only a few innings that year and in 1960. By then the Negro Leagues were dying, a casualty of the majors siphoning off the best black talent. Mason says the end of all-black baseball meant progress, but at a price. “It was good in one way because we were finally getting a chance to play in the majors, but bad in another way because it hurt a lot of black businesses that thrived off it.”

The game that night proves a let down. The reeling Royals lose 6-1 in a boring affair. The action’s scarce. The pace lethargic. The 17,000 fans apathetic. No spark, no panache, no pizzazz. That, and the scarcity of black players today, is why Mason doesn’t care to attend. Kauffman Stadium is a dreary concrete fortress outside and a gentrified gated-community inside. A white bread theme park with all the bells and whistles but minus the grit of the old stadiums or the charm of the new ones.

Day Three — Flirting with History

On the road by 8:30, we head east on I-70 for St. Louis and a rendezvous with destiny, we hope, in the form of a McGwire blast. But the Cardinals rate a poor second on this trip. Fittingly, Shorey  announces, “It’s a great day today. Sammy hit two last night and we picked up a half-game on the Mets in the wild card race.” His fellow Cubbies roar approval. Ricketts stews. A daily tour ritual is getting USA Today or the local daily for overnight game summaries and box scores. The results invariably spark debate.

While in-transit Shorey prompts a discussion about yesterday’s activities. Dan Schleisman, a coach-teacher from Shelby, Iowa who likes getting a rise out of the home fans with his bench-jockeying, remarks, “I was really disappointed in the Kansas City crowd. Here I am cheering for the other team and they’re not even saying anything. Usually you can get a reaction from the home team.”

As for the museum, Laura Barker of Council Bluffs says, “Before I started this class I had no idea what blacks went through in baseball. Now I suppose every time I think about baseball that will be a part of what I think about.” From an educator’s viewpoint, Shorey feels “it reinforced what we’ve been talking and reading about and made it come to life.”

Heading into St. Louis a bridge takes us across the majestic Mississippi River. We check in at the Henry VIII Lodge and Inn and catch a bite before reaching Busch Stadium. First, we wend our way through the club’s front office for a briefing by P.R. man Marti Henden. In keeping with the Cards-Cubs rivalry, the big huckster needles us, saying, “Let me show you something you haven’t see before,” and holding out a fat finger adorned by a World Series ring. Cubs fans are used to such abuse, even revel in it. Calling 1998 “a very abnormal year for us,” he adds, “Thanks in large part to Mr. McGwire we’re going to sell three millions tickets for only the third time in our history.” St. Louis averted losing its fan base (as some cities did) during the ‘94 strike season, he says, by courting fans as never before. “That started the turnaround.”

Next, we tour the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across from the stadium. It recounts the club’s rich heritage in loving detail. With the gates opening at 5:10 for the start of batting practice, I join the line. Any other year, you’d find a mere trickle of fans this long before game time (7:10 start), but with the McGwire phenomenon in full swing the queue snakes around Busch. It’s humid, and by the time we settle in the upper right center field bleachers, downright stifling. Hardly prime home run hunting territory as McGwire, a dead pull hitter, rarely hits one out here. The stands are packed anyway. His every move scrutinized. His every swat “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” by the faithful.

None of his pregame moonshots come our way.

 

 

 

 

In the game Big Mac is kept well in check through the 7th by the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with his Cards trailing 8-5 and the putrid air hanging still in this fish bowl of a stadium, the crowd is alive and involved, a sharp contrast to K.C. The excitement builds as the Cards stage a dramatic comeback in the 8th, loading the bases with Ray Lankford up and McGwire on deck.

Lankford caps the rally with a grand slam, pulling the home team ahead, and igniting a wave of noise. With the place still buzzing McGwire settles in and suddenly, sweetly IT HAPPENS. His powerful uppercut sails a ball directly toward us, carrying up and over into a tangle of bodies rushing the lip of the fence for a crack at the prized souvenir. In the ensuing melee one lean young man emerges with the ball and, improbably, it’s our own Matt Oviatt, 18, of Logan, Iowa, who leaped several rows below. He deliriously holds the ball aloft, twirling around, charged with the good vibrations of 38,000 cheering fans, repeating over and over, “Oh, my God.” For one moment anyway, he shares the stage with a superstar.

The solo shot is only the second opposite field homer of the year by McGwire, his 45th overall, and gives him his 100th RBI.

Later, a still juiced Oviatt says, “I can’t believe I caught this ball. I’m feeling nothing but freaking joy. I was just hoping we could see Mark McGwire bat one more time before we go. I never thought I’d catch a home run ball. Then, I saw it coming and I just jumped for it. It hit my left hand, bounced, and I caught it in my right hand. I just had to squeeze hard when everybody started tackling me. It’d be awesome if I could get it signed.”

An ESPN Magazine reporter on the scene interviews The Kid and tries pulling strings to secure The Man’s autograph, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Cards’ weak relief pitching falters in the 9th, giving up five runs, and the home team goes on to absorb a numbing 13-10 loss. Later, on the bus, Hazel expresses all our sentiments about Matt’s feat. “It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime. One he’ll treasure for years. That’s what this game’s all about. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”

Day Four — If It’ll Play In Peoria, It’ll Play Anywhere

The morning after, and The Catch is still the topic of the tour. Matt’s grab even made ESPN’s Sports Center highlights. His celebration must have lasted into the wee hours as he and his roomie straggle aboard some 15 minutes late. A sheepish Matt’s given a good razzing too. “This grandstanding has got to stop,” jokes Ricketts. Our star stores his coveted possession in a backpack he never lets out of sight.

Our next stop is Peoria, Ill. and a date with Rocky Vonachen, general manager and co-owner of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Cardinals affiliate we’ll see play this evening. We tool northeast on I-55, crossing the grand Mississippi again into Illinois. Shorey pops in a tape of “Bull Durham” to get us in a minor league frame of mind. You know, the band box parks, the kitsch sideshow antics, the groupies. As groupie extraordinaire Annie Savoy declares: “The only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball…” Shorey asks, “Is baseball a religion?” Nancy Mulholland of Malvern, Iowa replies, “No, it’s an addiction though.” Shorey says we’re getting a taste of what life on the road is like for minor leaguers with the long bus rides, the motel stays, the fast food pit-stops. It’s getting old fast.

Ensconced at the Fairfield Inn, we head for the ballpark. It’s about on par with a major college baseball stadium. The outfield fence screams with ads for River City Demolition. Bliss Implement Co. and Butternut Bread. Dressed in sport shirt and shorts,Vonachen greets us in a small picnic area down the right field line. He’s a genial guy eager to share the ins and outs of running a minor league franchise. His father, Pete, for whom the stadium’s named, owned the club in the 1980s. Then, when the Chiefs languished under outside ownership and were in danger of moving, Rocky and a group of Peorians bought it in 1994. The timely investment came in a booming  market. Where the franchise sold for $100,000 in 1982, it brought $2 million in 1994. Triple A clubs sell for five times that. Gate receipts are up too.

“Minor league baseball is growing by leaps and bounds. Back in the early ‘80s it was more of a Mom and Pop business. Now it is big business,” he says, adding the ‘94 strike provided a catalyst for the minors.“People still wanted to see professional baseball and started going to minor league parks. Parks across the country saw an influx of fans during the strike. As people got to see minor league baseball they found how affordable and fun it was. At the minor league level, it’s entertainment, folks. We do all the goofy promotions and all the giveaways at the gate because that’s what families come out for, and we focus on families.”

Chiefs tickets, typical of the minors, range from $3.50 to $5.50. During a pregame picnic-style repast players (in full uniform) grab supper at the concession stand. The game is marked by sloppy play, including drops of several easy fly balls. Maybe it’s the uneven grass field, which suffers from some kind of rot, or the low wattage lights overhead. The Chiefs’ fan-friendly attractions include a grocery cart race, a mascot, a contraption flinging T-shirts in the stands and Trash Man, a Generation-Xer in black tie, shorts and Day-Glo tennis shoes who dances in the aisles when not retrieving refuse. The distractions include the local groupies, brickhouse babes whose conspicuous primping behind the dugout and bullpen has heads turning all night. Still, far more families than singles are on-hand.

By 8:30, Magic Time rolls around, the setting sun muting the night sky in pastel shades of blue, purple and pink and, with the light towers, casting a burnished glow on the field that etches players in a kind of soft electric haze. Very Rockwellian. The Chiefs win in a rout 9-2 and personally greeting fans on the way out are Rocky, his dad and staff. “Thanks for coming. Hope you come back again.” They mean it too.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,” Rocky says.

Day Five — Baseball of Another Kind

By now we’re a caravan of gypsies wheeling from one baseball camp to another. We depart a little past 7 a.m., our earliest start yet. The discussion centers on last night. Everyone agrees the Chiefs put on a good show. Tom Lustgraaf of Council Bluffs, says, “To me, the things they’re doing are the things that will keep baseball alive and make it a positive experience for fans.” Lana Taylor, a nurse from Hastings, Iowa, notes how much more “relaxed” and “friendly” the confines were compared to the big league parks. “The goings-on really got me excited.”

Traveling northeast on I-80, we navigate our first toll roads and pass our first rock quarries. The Holy Scriptures of the tour, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” is reverently consulted in settling trivia disputes. We’re bound for South Bend, IN, where we’ll meet All-American Girls Professional Baseball League veterans and catch the hometown Class A Silver Hawks. For proper inspiration we view “A League of Their Own.” Later, Shorey strikes a nerve asking why girls play softball, not baseball. A battle of the sexes erupts but nothing’s settled.

The site of our panel discussion with the All-American Girls is the Northern Indiana Center for History, an old stone mansion with extensive gardens. Inside it’s bright, modern, airy. We sit in an auditorium to watch a documentary on the women’s league, with some of the featured players right beside us. When the video shows a reunion of players singing the league’s anthem, the teary-eyed veterans present sing-along.

 

 

 

 

The five panelists, who played in the  ‘40s and ‘50s, soon enchant us. We pepper them with questions about their uniforms (they began with skirts and went to pants), about the charm school set-up for them (“It didn’t rub off,” one quips), about breaking tradition (“We weren’t out to strike anything for women’s lib. We were just grateful we got to play baseball,” explains Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley.). Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon says when a scout asked her, “‘How’d you like to play ball for money?’” she replied, “‘Money? I’d play ball for nothing.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It changed my life completely. I have friends all over the country now because of it.”

Betsy Jochum notes the attention the league’s received this decade “has made us realize how unique it was to have a league of our own.” Frances “Big Red” Janssen adds, “It’s amazing to us people would still be interested in what we did.” Adds Lou Arnold, “It’s a pleasure for us to be meeting you people today. It’s like the feeling at our reunions — so warm.” The feeling’s mutual.

After the Q & A we rush the stage for autographs and a chance to kibitz one-on-one. Then we all go downstairs, where the veterans proudly show us a case filled with league memorabilia. Later, at our Super 8, it’s clear the women left quite an impression.

“The ladies were fantastic. I’d love to sit in a bar some night and really have a ball,” says Mulholland, a lifelong fan who grew up a tomboy on an Iowa farm, played catch with her dad when he came in from the fields and avidly followed town ball. “They’re just plain ordinary women, as common as dirt, who made a great difference in baseball and America in general.”

Chris Hartwig of Logan, Iowa adds, “Hearing the women’s stories and seeing their emotion and excitement about being part of history touched me quite a bit. I think it gives me a more complete love and appreciation for the game.” Hazel, who saw All-American games as a boy with his dad, says, “Once the game began there were no differences. It was a baseball game.”

South Bend Stadium is a spiffy new facility out of character with the old brick and mortar warehouse district it occupies. The immaculate grass field puts Peoria’s to shame. The South Bend-Kane County Cougars game goes by in a blur, overshadowed by nearly non-stop music, promotions, gimmicks. The star attraction is Myron Noodleman, a Jerry Lewis knock-off whose geek show leaves us cold, though the abundance of kids present eat it up. Still, on a cool clear night like this nothing can detract from the magic amber dusk illuminating this Elysian field where men are made boys again.

Day Six — Take Me to the Promised Land

A sound night’s sleep and late start (9 a.m.) buoy us in advance of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, mecca for our Cubs contingent. After St. Louis, we feel fate leading us to Mr. Sosa, who’s been on a tear. As an added bonus, pitching phenom Kerry Wood is on the mound today. It’s gorgeous out and soon the virile Chicago skyline crops into view. Nearing downtown, a Cubs video treats us to a swinging version of “My Sweet Chicago” and Harry Caray’s signature “Holy Cow.” Tidy row houses and cozy bars line the narrow congested streets of the neighborhood around Wrigley Field.

Parked by noon, we walk to the promised land. The Cubs-Colorado Rockies game has a 2:20 start, leaving ample time to eat, shop, browse. The energy is palpable. A Chicago Sun-Times vendor notes my K.C. Royals hat and asks, “Sir, you have the wrong cap on today, don’t you?” Boy, do I.

 

 

 

 

Wrigley is a tavern of a stadium. A homey place where beer flows freely and patrons mix easily. It throbs with the pulse of the city, as fans root atop adjacent brownstones and arrive via L’s lumbering overhead. Back on his home turf, Hazel beams like a kid again on his old stomping grounds.

“That’s exactly what Wrigley Field is — home. So many memories are coming back of my Cubs childhood. I was born and raised within walking distance of Wrigley. I remember coming home from school in the middle of summer to our hot apartment and finding my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of Pilsner beer in one hand and an iron in the other, watching the Cubs game on TV. I was about 8 when my folks took me to my first game. Later, I went with buddies after school to catch the last couple innings of games. They let us in free. The homework could wait. Summers, we sat in the bleachers for 50 cents. It’s a fantastic place. There’s nothing like it, eh?”
Nothing indeed.

Even with the Cubs winning handily (by a final score of 9-1) most fans remain boisterously attentive throughout. The few idiots who dawdle in the aisles elicit cries of “Down and front!” The 40,000 Cubs faithful leave happy, having seen Sosa smash his 42nd homer (it lands no where near us) and Wood notch his 11th win. A briskly played game on a crisp afternoon in the Tottling Town. Who could ask for more?

After crawling through rush-hour traffic we spend the night at a Quality Inn. Some do the town, scoring autographs at Harry Caray’s place. I enjoy my first decent meal at a Greek Town eatery. Sated, I sleep soundly.

Day Seven — Dream State

Another fair weather day finds us still in high spirits from the the Wrigley trip, which rates a rave from most. Ricketts sums it up with, “For me it was like going back into history. I feel like I could have been there in 1902 and experienced the same thing. I’m a Mets fan and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wrigley Field.” Adds Hazel, “On behalf of the city, I appreciate the comments…It is a special place.”

Illinois-20, a classic American back country highway, follows the rolling contour of the planted fields and patchwork meadows spread out on either side. As we watch “Field of Dreams” I realize it’s search for simple truths parallels ours. Seeing it right before arriving in Dyersville, Iowa lends a surreal quality to an already other-worldly site. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but with a difference. It may only be the film’s influence, but a ballpark merging with a cornfield into an endless horizon is a kind of never-never land come to life.  A place where time stands still and dreams unfold.

The place is crowded, kids and adults alike lined up waiting for a crack at the ball, others jostling for a spot in the field. Why do we come? A pretty young Texas woman, traveling with her sister on a baseball pilgrimage of their own, offers a clue. Peering out at the field, Kris Flabiano says, “I mean, just look at this. There’s people here from every state and they’re all playing ball together. Everybody’s talkin’ to everybody like they’re next door neighbors. Baseball’s a staple. It holds people together.” Our own Lana Taylor adds, “It’s like living a baseball dream out there. It’s reliving things.”

Once back on the Illinois side of the Mississippi we meet two minor league umps who compare their travails of making it to the majors with that of players. They describe a “brotherhood” among The Men in Blue and the restraint needed to weather expletive-filled temper tantrums on the field.

Hopping the border to Davenport, we stow our gear at an, ugh, Super 8 and then make the Quad Cities River Bandits-Burlington Bees game. Davenport’s downtown riverfront provides a scenic backdrop. Just outside the quaint, brick-faced Quad Cities stadium, casino and cruise boats course down the Mississippi on one side and freight trains rumble past on the other. Added to the organ tunes, the vendor barkers, the lively fans and the heroics under the lights, it makes for a carnival atmosphere. After the River Bandits thump the Bees 11-1, a fireworks show sends us off with a bang.

Day Eight — Coming Home

Daytrippers at last. No more motels after tonight. “Headed for the home stretch” is how one of our group puts it. By 8 a.m. we’re bound for the Amana Colonies and a hearty brunch. We hit our first patch of inclement weather nearing the Bob Feller Hometown Exhibit in Van Meter, Iowa, a shrine to the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher. A sculptual relief mural outside shows “Rapid Robert” delivering one of his high hard ones. Moving ever eastward, we gather at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, to hear hitting instructor Glenn Adams talk about helping players “be selective” at the plate, pitcher Kurt Miller describe life in the minors as “a job” and G.M. Sam Bernabe extol the virtues of “group sales.”

After a steady diet of Class A ball, this Triple A outing is a welcome way to end the trip. The park, a smaller version of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, features 44 skyboxes. Fixtures aside, the scene here or at any ballpark is much the same. Baseball invites fans to take it in their own measure. To banter back and forth about the game or life (maybe it’s the same thing), whether it’s Dan Schleisman yelling “C’mon guys, rally time!” or John Shorey musing why “there’s no phrase for an easy grounder,” unlike, say, “a can of corn” for an easy popout.

“Due to the nature of the game, with its momentary lulls,” says John Hazel, “there’s a camaraderie in the stands among the fans, be they rich-poor, whatever. It’s a real simpatico type thing.” Jack Duggan of Omaha adds, “What I like about it is you can keep up with what’s happening on the field and converse at the same time.”

Yes, the game flows like a great river from town to town, its mighty current rolling slowly, methodically on. You can return to it at your leisure and know it’s still there. “I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” says Shorey. “The times, the players, the issues, the settings may change, but the game itself doesn’t change.” There’s comfort in that. In its continuity and connection to more earlier times, like Nancy Mulholland playing catch with her dad or Hazel sneaking into Cubs games. In its being a proving ground and launching pad for the Henry Masons or Elizabeth Mahons of the world.

If I had to boil it down to one truth, baseball is big and enduring enough to embrace America’s dreams. It’s like coming home.

P.S. Iowa lost 6-4 to the Colorado Spring Sky Sox. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?

“This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good, and that can be good again…”
From the film “Field of Dreams”

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