Saturday, January 31, 2004

Closing a Career: The
Cosmic Wisdom of John Smoltz  

That last entry about Willie Mays attracted a lot of interesting posts at Baseball Primer, as well as some insightful e-mail, many of which asked the question, "So when do you retire yourself or push the decison on someone else who seems to be overstaying his contributions?"

I encourage you to take the path of John Smoltz, who is neither going gentle in that good night nor hanging on as a merely a fan favorite with nothing to offer.

After eleven consecutive years as a net-positive starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, he suffered an injury that limited the number of innings he could throw. The Braves' management caluclated a way to use what innings Smoltz could pitch in a way they considered his appearances would be highly leveraged: They made him their closer.

In the last three seasons he's been the Braves' primary closer & he's been as successful as before (if not a little moreso), in this late career shift:

Year W   L   G  GS SV  IP   H    R HR BB  SO  _ERA __*lgERA ERA+
2001 3   3  36   5 10 59.0  53  24  7
_10  57  3.36  4.41  131
2002 3   2  75   0 55 80.3  59  30  4  24  85  3.25  4.11  127
2003 0   2  62   0 45 64.3  48   9  2   8  73  1.12  4.16  371

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.Com

It's fascinating that an individual can make this transition and be just as good. The mental aptitude set you need to be consistently-good starter is very different from those required to be a successful high-pressure relief pitcher. The chess-game aspect of the game is different, the mental and emotional cues you need to use as a starter or reliver are nearly opposites. Yes, the physical game is similar (not identical), and many of the strategic overlays and fundamentals are the same, but they really are quite different.


Don't undermestimate the emotional shift required, too. As with many American people outside baseball, one's job becomes one's key identity for interacting with the the world (as in the near-universal-stranger-at-a-party opener, So what do you do?). Giving up that identity (and if you do it really well and people recognize you do it really well, that bit of orgone, too) is a monster challenge, tougher than getting Strom Thurmond in any of his last 24 years in the Senate to recognize what the topic being discussed was.

I think the trick of knowing when to change positions or retire is this: (A) Have some perspective on your life that extends beyond the tunnel-vision world of work, and (B) Have a vision that's concrete and not based on numbers outside your control, and (C) Make sure those measures don't involve what other people think of you or what you should accomplish, but match your own view of yourself.

That's exactly the Cosmic Wisdom Smoltz has.

This from an interview by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Terence Moore:

Given Smoltz's psyche, which is dominated by a spiritual desire to be the best that he can be as a way to inspire others, he has more important things to worry about in baseball. Such as doing whatever it takes to help the Braves win a second world championship after flopping for much of their 12-year playoff run.

This is the stuff of great competitors. Great competitors prosper no matter what, and despite Smoltz spending most of his career battling injuries and hitters, he still manages to prosper. Great competitors also can tell you how they often dreamed as a youth of starring in the seventh game of the World Series along the way to sprinting into Cooperstown.

"My dreams strictly involved the seventh game of the World Series, and I never even thought about the Hall of Fame," said Smoltz, 37, recalling his days as a prolific athlete in his native Lansing, Mich. "In my back yard, all I did was pitch hundreds of games of the seventh game of the World Series. I made sure that I lost one of them, just to make sure that I would get some kind of reality." [snip]

A couple of questions, though: How long can Smoltz continue to ignore his aches and pains? He says he's healthy now after his elbow problems near the end of last season, but what about next season, and those after that? "I will retire before I even think about playing an extra year or two that might get me over the [Hall of Fame] hump," Smoltz said. "I will not hang on. I will not pitch beyond my year of competitiveness or even competence, just to get into the Hall of Fame. That's just the truth."

In your organization, how many managers and executives have their eye on some external recognition or mark of success (the Ferrari Testarossa, the trophy spouse, the dollar bonus or wealth accumulation target)? Too many, I'll guess.

For Smoltz, it's not the Hall of Fame (out of his control, external recognition). It's "being the best he can be" and pitching as long as he can be competitive. Thos are guildelines you can use yourself, and if you are struggling with someone in a key position who won't change jobs or retire, you can apply these guielines by trying to get that person to outline their goals and examine them to see if they're healthy.

I've had some success using guidelines close to these Smoltz ones to talk a frozen person though their thinking. And in some cases, people can awaken enough to overcome their fear of change. I said, "some". People, especially Americans, have a hard time differentiating their real identity and self from the way others see them (and the way they see themselves) through their work.

I won't guarantee you the Cosmic Wisdom of John Smoltz will save someone swirling the bowl too long, but it's the best construct I know for waking up the person plaquing up an organizationw ith their suspended animation.

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