The Commissioner and The Baseball



What is the strangest relationship you have ever had? Was it in your family, so you had no choice? Did you have a lover whose very existence in your live now baffles you? Did you have a boss who you are now sure was a sociopath?  No one gets through life without a strange relationship or ten.

When I jumped careers and got into politics, I sampled candidates for Portland city council. I met Nick Fish at a leadership lunch. He was funny, engaged and energetic. People I barely knew, but respected, said he was a good guy. When, a couple of weeks later, he asked me to work with him on his campaign I was all in. That was it. Just that simple.

I just showed up at his first public forum at the Unitarian Church. I watched, listened and took notes. Little details: like how he sat at the table, where he looked when other candidates spoke and of course the content of his answers. He had run a tough race before, so he was no rookie, but to my eyes he was clearly rusty. After the event ended, I told him I had notes. His response was, “Great, let me buy you some sushi.” As he woofed down California rolls, we went over my critique in great detail. So began an almost 8-year collaboration.

I have a healthy ego and am also a ninja level introvert. Nick has a robust ego and is a black belt extrovert. I quickly discovered my favorite place at his political events was leaning against the back wall. Nick has both the need and skill to somehow connect with almost anyone in a room. I am a wreck if I anticipate any public speaking. Nick gets antsy when he isn’t on the dais. This social interaction yin and yang made us almost a perfect match as elected and staffer. My homeruns were watching words I had written cause a palpable impact on a room when they were coming out of his mouth.

Nick and I are about the same age. Our life story roots could not be more different. Big city and small town. White collar and blue collar. Jazz and punk rock. Fine dining and take-out. True blue liberal and a mostly moderate. But we had lived the same American history. The two of us were a decade, or decades, older than the rest of the team. And, as the staff changed, we were the last ones who had been there for his first winning campaign.

While my name is only on one City ordinance, I can look at the list of Nick’s most important accomplishments and know that several of them started as a scribble on one of my note pads. That’s the job. Mostly invisible. Getting to the finish line on some of those accomplishments was not easy. I’m a contrarian. As political operative I am naturally combative. Nick is a consensus guy. Sometimes I turned the volume to 10 knowing he would turn it down to 7. The entire time I was just trying to avoid the dull, imperceptible hum of 5.

The differences between us could be explosive. Our idiosyncrasies could annoy the hell out of each other. There were a few times we were more like angry brothers in a fight. We yelled at each other behind his closed door. Sometimes, I was wrong. Sometimes, he was wrong. Most often we were both wrong. But like brothers, once the dust settled, we were fine.  

I remember one time, after a loud, vigorous discussion, I walked out his office door feeling fine. I looked around the office to see a collection of horrified faces. Not one of the other team members could even imaging yelling at “The Commissioner.” I smiled and reassured them we were fine. “Good meeting.”

The last Christmas I worked with Nick, he invited us all up to his apartment for a “holiday” party. What no-one but Sally knew is that I almost drove away. My nervous system was on high alert all the time by that point. I willed myself into that elevator and made a beeline to the wine glasses when we arrived. At one point, I went down the hall to the bathroom. Just inside one of the rooms was a small table with a baseball in a protective cover. I didn’t touch it but leaned down to see who had signed it. Sometime later in the evening, I said to Nick in passing something like, “Very cool baseball.”

How I start things and end things is very important to me. I was angry for a long time about how my time in City Hall ended. A few months after I left, out of the blue, I got a message from Nick that he wanted to give me something. I just couldn’t meet him then…for a lot of reasons. I was still struggling to get my feet back under me after the reemergence of my PTSD during my last months in City Hall. I think one of the reasons Nick wanted to meet was to tell me about his cancer diagnosis. He went public with the news a couple of days after our missed meeting.

Weeks later, I screwed up my courage and went down to meet with him. I didn’t want to walk into City Hall, but it was more important that he know that I was still there for him and his new challenge. He said he forgot to bring in what he had for me. It remained a mystery.

With Nick, you are sometimes unsure if you have left a lasting impact on him. He is restless and tends to focus on who and what is right in front of him. A few weeks ago, almost a year since I retired, I went to see one of his reelection forums. I stood in the back of the room as usual. Afterwards, he made a big deal about having some things for me. I went down to City Hall a couple days later.

One of the first things I did for Nick was staff the discussions that pushed my beloved Portland Beavers, and baseball, out of town and brought in the Timbers. I was mortified and angered. I haven’t ever recovered. When I used to go to games at Civic Stadium and see old guys keeping score, I would tell friends, “Look at those guys. That is my retirement.” Endless “celebrations” of soccer in City Hall were fingernails on my baseball blackboard. I have not set foot in the stadium since the Beavers left. What would be the point? A handful of the dirt from around home plate from the last game is in a plastic bag on my desk. A relic in my personal baseball shrine.

I sat across from Nick on his Ikea couch and he brought out a bag. First, he handed me a signed first edition of a book called “Slide!”. (Nick collects first editions…so this was a big deal.) He then told me that he knew I would never recover from losing the Beavers but he had found some things in his book store rambles that might help. He gave me a written and pictorial history of the Portland Beavers (very cool) and, I have no idea where he found this, an official 2002 Portland Beavers program. Funny thing is, I was so poor when I started to go to Beavers games that I didn’t buy the program. I could only afford the lineup/scorecard for 50 cents. As he handed me the program, I was on the edge of tears.

As we talked about the books he kept one hand in the bag. Then he said, “I have a family of soccer fans and I wanted this to be with someone who would appreciate it and take good care of it.” Out came the ball I had seen in his apartment. Mounted on a dark wood stand, it is a ball signed to his father, “For Cong. Fish   With Best Wishes   Fay Vincent.”  Vincent was the commissioner of baseball.  What I hadn’t seen the first time is that the ball was stamped “OFFICIAL BALL 1991 ALL-STAR GAME.” And, real baseball fans will get the importance of this, the ball was rubbed in and appeared to be game used. 

My relationship with Nick is one of the strangest of my life. But don’t confuse strange with bad. From his journey to Portland politics to my dumping a long career to chase a political dream, almost everything about our time together was improbable. Still, somehow, we managed to leave indelible marks on each other’s lives. As I parted, I did something that had never happened between us before. I gave the Commissioner a hug.

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