Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Sammy Sosa & The Collective Unconscious:
Executive Fads as Transitive Trepidation  

As I've written about before, upper-management initiatives are too frequently driven neither by need nor by Archimedean "Aha!" innovation, but by a lemming-like adherence to fad. The vast majority of executives, incapable of creating appropriate innovations hear a speech at the Junior Presidents' Club or a Rotary lunch or a trade show or read a short article in an airline magazine, and quicker than Jason Giambi can run from the batter's box to first base (about six seconds the one time I measured it) strategic plans are being thrown out, consultants hired & blisteringly big bucks blasted broadside to copy the idea.

Fads are not necessarily bad ideas. But there's always a chance that the fad is not based on some actual need but a neurotic trigger.

These triggers can be personal. I consulted once to a fairly big firm on an aggressive initiative that required the involvement of five departments. Four were re-tuning their operations with some additional staff and redesigned processes to squeeze out some extra time for adoption, while a fifth, mysteriously, was downsizing and purging functions. It turned out the department manager had had a parent die and in his personal life was clearing out an old house full of "stuff" and it affected his entire emotional outlook which he then allowed to seep into his work. He was doing the same thing at work (unnecessarily) as he was doing at home, a lack of self-awareness (third base in the MBB Model).

These triggers can be society-wide. In times of overarching systemic stress, such as the U.S. is now experiencing, the fads that catch on are likely to be based on fear instead of pushing forward. An extraordinary amount of attention is being spent within our society on non-productive (technical term there, not perjorative) activities, like security and tracking systems, as opposed to building new production capacity or R&D or other investments designed to expand opportunities. This is true for business and government especially. Like the departmental manager who was grieving for his lost parent, the backdrop of the entire business and government cultures' mindset is in a defensive stance affected more by a generalized trepidation than by a healthy pursuit of opportunity

Baseball is a swell canary in the mine for this generalized trepidation.

And Peter Gammons is a wonderful turkey thermometer for baseball executive conventional wisdom. When you read his column, either in the paper or on-line, you are getting the best-connected conventional wisdom transceiver in the business.

So what's the collective unconscious feeling? Well before we get to Sosa, I want you to have some background on the collective unconscious around steroids. Here's Gammons' opener from Dec 4th:

It is a shame that Jose Canseco's book isn't yet off the presses, or that Ken Caminiti died. Their voices should be heard this week, voices from the ashes of the time when owners and chicks who dug the long ball stimulated the steroids era.

The week that baseball's dirty little secret became a scandal, the game that is a billion dollar business turned into a cesspool of needles, creams, performance-enhancing corporations, illegal (not to mention immoral) leaks and lawyers' fees. Since Mark Fainaru-Wada and the people at the San Francisco Chronicle so brilliantly detailed what our government promised was confidential information, the baseball business has taken a hit. How serious a hit we will not know until we see where the roads that lead out of BALCO take us, or if government officials leak the private, confidential information from the 2003 drug testing they seized, which will detail the identities of the more than 50 players who tested positive.

What we do now believe is that when Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth sometime this spring, it will be greeted not by cheers, but jeers, or worse, disinterest. When Bonds passes Henry Aaron in early 2006, we will be reminded that what once was the most regal of all sports records will have been relegated to the level of the all-time NHL goals leader.

Talk about overarching hand-wringing (and overwriting). Baseball fans as a vast pool are somewhat affected by distrust of the game in the wake of the steroid-hunting fad. But most either don't care much or understand that steroids are not intrinsically performance-enhancing.

They didn't enhance Ken Caminiti's career, they ended it. They didn't enhance Marvin Benard's career. Benard, "The Nicaraguan Nothing", bought the same treatments from the same seller that Barry Bonds did. Before he took those treatments, he performed like a marginal 5th outfielder. After he took them, it transformed his performance not a whit -- he was still a marginal 5th outfielder.

As a nation, we've been in a multi-year period of accelerating hand-wringing and anxiety-driven initiatives. Fads like concern about steroids aren't generally about baseball itself, they're about a society-wide feeling that behavior needs to be regulated and enforced rigorously in an attempt to bring back a sense of lost X.

Congress is on fire about steroids in baseball, much more so than they are about something they can do something about, iatrogenic deaths (avoidable fatalities inadvertently caused during medical treatments, estimated as being the 3rd highest cause of death in this country, roughly 63,000/month by one study's estimate). And because Congress is on fire about it, and because Congress can overturn Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption, the executives suddenly care a lot. Because the execs care a lot, the reporters are tranceiving a lot of this angst.

NOTE: I'm personally opposed to athletes taking steroids for non-medical purposes (there are a lot of medical purposes for steroids, such as asthma & tissue reinforcement), & I'd prefer baseball players didn't take them. I suspect it may be proven that there are some long-term ill health effects in many users from chronic use, and, as with any substance, there are going to be a few individuals who have catastrophic results even from small exposure, as with ibuprofen or prozac or sulfites. It's not as important to outcomes in baseball as a dozen other factors that need to be dealt with.

Gammons wrote in his most recent column:

The fallout from the BALCO leaks stuffed the rest of baseball underground for four days. So baseball reaches the Dec. 7 date for free agents to be offered arbitration and the Dec. 9 assembling of the winter meetings far behind where it normally finds itself in terms of signings and trades. {snip}

The Cubs want to deal Sosa to the Mets --for Cliff Floyd and a prospect, with Chicago making the money work -- but the Mets haven't indicated whether they're still in it. There had been reports in New York that the Barry Bonds "scandal" affected New York's thinking, but the Cubs' front office thinks that is absurd, since Sosa has never been linked to any steroid scandal and last year hit 34 home runs despite missing close to 30 games because of a back injury.

Remarkable. Barry Bonds added weight as he aged (normal), and started hitting more home runs (normal) as other aspects of his game such as baserunning speed and range in the outfield started declining (normal). And he apparently took supplements which may get categorized as steroids. Sammy Sosa got heavier as he aged, hit more home runs and his baserunning speed and outfield range declined as he aged. So, the magical thinking goes, Sammy Sosa is about to be involved in a steroid use Brewer-ha-ha?

Weak thinking based on the transitive property of trepidation.

If the Giants play good baseball next year with Bonds on the team, they are going to sell as many tickets as they did in the past. Sosa is more popular as an individual than Bonds (who tends to be sullen and uncooperative with the press and sometimes also with teammates, and therefore gets less good publicity). If you weighted "voting" based on tickets bought per year, people willing to buy tickets to see players who were implicated in a supplements (steroids, andro, vitamins, etc. etc.) issue, the votes willing to not modify their attendance behavior would win in a landslide. And Sosa attracts more affection than Bonds.

There is, however, an incredibly convincing reason not to trade for Sammy Sosa, something the Mets appear to have missed, oir at least haven't mentioned to Gammons. Sammy Sosa is coming off 3rd consecutive seasonal decline for both quantity and quality:

Year Age Games OPS+
2001 32 160 201
2002 33 150 160
2003 34 137 135
2004 35 126 110

OPS+ is a single-number measure of offensive quality, 100 being league-average

He's not prune whip -- he still hit 35 homers last season. But he carries about a $16 million/year salary, and that consistent (if only four-season) decline should be an ominous warning to be careful.

I'm not suggesting Sosa is doomed to further immediate decline -- he might have had a nagging health problem that finally reached a crescendo last year. But if I was running the Mets in the current salary environment, I'd be very hesitant to take on Sosa's salary given the recnt history of his performance on the field, even with his value off the field.

Trepidation doesn't win pennants. The Collective Unconscious can't score runs. But both can get in the way of a clear-headed decision, in baseball and beyond.

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