Sunday, March 28, 2004

MoneylessBall: Where Bluster Passes Muster  

A couple of regular readers have asked me to comment on today's New York Times Magazine article (registration required) by Moneyball author Michael Lewis on his high school baseball coach, "Coach Fitz's Management Theory".

It's a lovely evocative piece. There's not much management theory floating around its 8,000 words, although there are stories from which you might sketch the beginnings of a basis of a theory. I suspect Lewis did not write the headline, but someone on the copy desk who had scanned it as a proofreader was responsible (at dailies, it's pretty rare the author gets her headline/title on an article).

If you read the piece, you'll get a real dose of New Orleans' Newman School's now-controversial Billy Fitzgerald, a former Athletics' prospect cut almost perfectly from the Dick Williams cloth. I've written about Williams' management techniques before, and described the advantages and disadvantages of the approach. Fitzgerald, like The Skipper, is an old-school guy who believes everyone should try to do their best all the time and not ruminate too much on failure, but look forward. I would call it a bit of a Roman Catholic approach: you confess, get absolution in exchange for a small amount of trouble that you can remember was somewhat troublesome, and then just move on. Like Skipper, Fitzgerald is a really smart guy (better read, it seems, than Williams, who I never heard quoting Victor Frankl), and has a bad temper that he can use as a weapon and generally knows when and where to use as a technique to inspire his charges.

In moneyless ball, pre-college schooling environments, it may be the single most probabilistically effective technique for a baseball coach. The charges are pre-adolescents or adolescents, chronically unfocused, riddled with fears of inadequacy emulsified in a solution of arrogance and a belief in the self's ultimate immortality and superiority. In baseball as a income-generating profession, the approach has its limits, because most pros are making significantly more money than the coach, and in a society that worships money as its most frequent measure of virtue, this makes adherence to the ultimate wisdom of the coach a tricky proposition.

But for adolescents and immature adults (many of whom are people you have to learn how to manage well), it can be a real winner. Here's Lewis talking about having to relieve the team's best pitcher because the opposing coach called Fitz on a rule that normally wasn't enforced (the two-trips to the mound in the same inning one) at this level.

Out of one side of his mouth Fitz tore into the rule-book-carrying high-school coach -- who scurried, ratlike, back to the safety of his seat; out of the other he shouted at me to warm up. The ballpark was already in an uproar, but the sight of me (I resembled a scoop of vanilla ice cream with four pickup sticks jutting out from it) sent their side into spasms of delight. I represented an extreme example of our team's general inability to intimidate the opposition. The other team's dugout needed a shave; ours needed, at most, a bath. (Some unwritten rule in male adolescence dictates that the lower your parents' tax bracket, the sooner you acquire facial hair.) As I walked out to the mound, their hairy, well-muscled players danced jigs in their dugout, their coaches high-fived, their fans celebrated and shouted lighthearted insults. The game, as far as they were concerned, was over. I might have been unnerved if I'd paid them any attention; but I was, at that moment, fixated on the only deeply frightening thing in the entire ballpark: Coach Fitz.

By then I had heard (from the eighth graders, I believe) all the Fitz stories. Billy Fitzgerald had been one of the best high-school basketball and baseball players ever seen in New Orleans, and he'd gone on to play both sports at Tulane University. He'd been a top draft pick of the Oakland A's. But we never discussed Fitz's accomplishments. We were far more interested in his intensity. We heard that when he was in high school, when his team lost, Fitz refused to board the bus; he walked, in his catcher's gear, from the ballpark at one end of New Orleans to his home at the other. Back then he played against another New Orleans superstar, Rusty Staub. While on second base, Staub made the mistake of taunting Fitz's pitcher. Fitz raced out from behind home plate and, in full catcher's gear, chased a terrified future All-Star around the field. [snip]

And now he was standing on the pitcher's mound, erupting with a Vesuvian fury, waiting for me to arrive. When I did, he handed me the ball and said, in effect, Put it where the sun don't shine. I looked at their players, hugging and mugging and dancing and jeering. No, they did not appear to suspect that I was going to put it anywhere unpleasant. Then Fitz leaned down, put his hand on my shoulder and, thrusting his face right up to mine, became as calm as the eye of a storm. It was just him and me now; we were in this together. I have no idea where the man's intention ended and his instincts took over, but the effect of his performance was to say, There's no one I'd rather have out here in this life-or-death situation. And I believed him!

As the other team continued to erupt with joy, Fitz glanced at the runner on third base, a reedy fellow with an aspiring mustache, and said, ''Pick him off.'' Then he walked off and left me all alone.

If Zeus had landed on the pitcher's mound and issued the command, it would have had no greater effect. The chances of picking a man off third base are never good, and even worse in a close game, when everyone's paying attention. But this was Fitz talking, and I can still recall, 30 years later, the sensation he created in me. I didn't have words for it then, but I do now: I am about to show the world, and myself, what I can do.

At the time, this was a wholly novel thought for me. I'd spent the previous school year racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers and thinking up new ways to waste my time on earth. Worst of all, I had the most admirable, loving parents on whom I could plausibly blame nothing. What was wrong with me? I didn't know. To say I was confused would be to put it kindly; ''inert'' would be closer to the truth. In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at 2 in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars -- you needed a hacksaw and two full nights to cut the winged medallion off a Bentley. Now this fantastically persuasive man was insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero.

The kid with the fuzz on his upper lip bounced crazily off third base, oblivious to the fact that he represented a new solution to an adolescent life crisis. I flipped the ball to the third baseman, and it was in his glove before the kid knew what happened. The kid just flopped around in the dirt as the third baseman applied the tag. I struck out the next guy, and we won the game. Afterward, Coach Fitz called us together for a brief sermon. Hot with rage at the coach with the rule book -- the ballpark still felt as if it were about to explode -- he told us all that there was a quality no one within five miles of this place even knew about, called ''guts,'' which we all embodied. He threw me the game ball and said he'd never in all his life seen such courage on the pitcher's mound. He'd caught Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers and a lot of other big-league pitchers -- but who were they?

A core of the Fitzgerald/Williams technique is the bluster is a smokescreen. At the key moment, if there's a lesson to teach, the listener is so attuned to trying to make sure he doesn't displease "the angry father" that he's really concentrating on acting on the instruction. And because it's said calmly, it's notably different, an exception, a surprise, and processed . And he's not forcing Lewis to do something Lewis is afraid he doesn't do well enough (pitch to the batter), but to do something else about which he'll have little anxiety, pick off the runner at 3rd.

The advantages are all to the Newman School team. If it works, it's a big statistical shift (an extra out and no runner on third from where it's so probable he'll score), plus it's a change in momentum and builds the confidence of Lewis. If it doesn't work and the runner is safe, no loss, and Lewis has a few more seconds to compose himself.


There will be some employees you just have to bluster at. If you bluster, though, at mature contributors, the likelihood is you'll lose part of their loyalty and some of their productivity. And if you want to ever be mediocre or better as a manager, you can never allow yourself to actually bluster without knowing that you're at a level you could turn off in an instant (like Fitzgerald did on the mound), and placed in context as part of an overall process.

As Lewis explained later in the article, for his coach, success was not an event or even a set of events, it was a process. So while on the outside, Billy Fitzgerald is a dangerous explosive device, in reality, that is a technique he uses as part of an overall plan, a process for tuning his charges for the tasks at hand and later when he won't be right there to make every decision.

Outside of baseball, all the blustering managers I ever met had no long-range process design in mind. The closest I ever came was Ray, the former NYC fire captain who ran the mailroom at a talent agency I interned at. Ray blustered, but wasn't trying to intimidate, merely stress how important he thought it all was. But he had no long-term design.

Do you know any successful Fitzgerald/Williams types beyond baseball? I'd love to hear any stories; I think they're a very rare type.

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