Thursday, October 23, 2003

Surviving Toxic Environments:
Joe Torre -- Human HazMat Suit  

The Yankees lost last night. They've gotten all the way to a World Series, they're tied at 2 wins each, and they hold the home field advantage. If you read sports columnists' jeremiads, you'd think Joe Torre, the 5th-winningest (percentage) baseball manager of all time, was a frelling moron.

The Yankees lost last night. Playing in Miami, they came back late in the game to tie it, held the Marlins through 9, and went into extra innings against the home team. Home teams have specific tactical advantages. Like the debate team that goes last, they can tweak their approach to the situation and respond to whatever the first team did. This is why every season the home team will win ~.545 - .550 of the games played. If the home team enters the bottom of the 9th with the game tied, their chances of winning smash through that range, because unlike the rest of the game, a single run guarantees victory. Strategies that are net-negative for winning a game when you look at their composite value (sacrifice bunts, many kinds of hit and run plays, sending marginal baserunners for an extra base on a hit, swinging for the fences on every decent pitch) become net-positive because the conditions for winning get stripped down to one simple objective: acquiring a single run.

The Yankees lost last night. Going into extra innings tied, they were at a terrible disadvantage to the Marlins, who could swing for the fences, or play little ball, or run the bases like drunken sailors on a last shore leave before being shipped out to the Middle East for a couple of years. Torre had used his best reliever, Mariano Rivera, for a couple of innings the night before, and if he'd entered the bottom of one of those extra innings with a lead, would have used Rivera up some more to protect it. But the Marlins kept slipping through Yankee half-innings. Torre first used Jose Contreras for a few innings. Contreras didn't have his best stuff, but was good enough. And Torre pinch-hit for Contreras in the top of the 11th during a rally the Fish finally aborted without yielding a run. Torre brought in the Yanks' least-successful starter of the season, Jeff Weaver. And Weaver looked like last year's Weaver. He was throwing hard breaking stuff for strikes and mowed down the Marlins in order in the bottom half of the 11th. And when the Yanks didn't score in the top of the 12th, he rolled Weaver out again. And the first hitter, Alex "Sea Bass" Gonzalez, swung for the fences and hit a homer. Which can happen to any pitcher, including Rivera, in the home half of an extra-inning game.

The Yankees lost last night. Based on some of the NY press response (most ignorant example being this one, courtesy of Baseball Primer), you'd have thought Torre had lost the game. All that superstition about destiny and mystique has gone to their heads, perhaps, and they'r forgetting about the vast home team advantage in extra-inning games. And in their heart-thumping fear of losing (take some Paxil guys, alright?), they create a toxic environment for a manager.

In toxic environments where every managerial choice or action is subject to 20-20 hindsight (corporate, military, non-profit are most frequently subject to this one) any choice that doesn't work out will be dragged around the building for a couple of days, like Achilles' corpse at the walls of Troy, till it's a stinky minute steak. The attackers usually aren't people who have to make decisions themselves, in fact, the people who start this behavior tend to be people who consciously avoid positions that require committing to a decision. And once this ethos takes hold and is rewarded by executive management, everyone, even people who don't like to play that toxic waste-spraying game, pretty much have to play to stay afloat.

The social standards for evaluation mutate in that environment. Actual analysis fades as a technique, and a simplistic binary evaluation emerges: managers become "winners" and "losers" and become so on the basis of a recent decision that worked out or didn't. Managers become "geniuses" or "dolts" based on one tactical move (for the obverse to the goofy New York column I referred to previously, check out this goofy Philadelphia/San Jose column). Rats imprisoned in Skinner Boxes show more sophisticated cognition.

The New York sports news and fan environment is extremely toxic in this way (the owner himself contributes an extra helping), and Torre has done a nifty job over the years in buffering his players from it. But he's still going to take a lot of hits himself. If he had used Rivera on this consecutive night, he'd have been taking the exact chance Grady Little had taken using Pedro in the game last week...you go with your best even when you're overusing him. That Little maneuver didn't work out. Either choice can work and either can blow up in your face. That's management.

TIP:In your own organization, absorbing the toxins yourself to protect underlings will work to some degree. But you really have only two choices long-term. If you care about doing a good job and delivering a group's good work, you can 1) evacuate the toxic waste dump you work in, or 2) fight to convert the social reward system of blame-attachment. You do the latter by calling the blamegamers every single time, not by blaming them for their own decisions that didn't work out.

I recommend the first choice. It's easier. And toxic organizations don't deserve good managers.

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