Monday, January 31, 2005

Sammy Sosa Done In By Karl Marx:
Steve Yastrow's Observations  

"Every slugger carries within him
the seeds of his own destruction" -- Karl Marx

Sammy Sosa, the slugger, the man-child, the personality, the franchise player, the out-of-favor ex-clean up hitter of the Chicago Cubs, the identifying face of the Cubbies, has gone from Windy City to Charm City. In a weekend trade, he was formally exiled to a better hitting team (the good news...he'll likely see better pitches to hit), the Baltimore Orioles, in the Crucible of Death Division (the bad news, in the AL East, his team has serious challenges getting past tougher contenders).

Steve Yastrow, one of the consortium of elite thinkers at Tom Peters' site (the total capability of that group -- Yastrow, Hansen, Mosca, Peters himself, and others, too, is stunning; it's a lot more than the thoughts of one insightful person, it's a veritable Lumber Company of business-specific management insight), posted yesterday on the events leading up to the trade, events that catapulted the Northside's Dominican Darling into the First Circle of Brand Identity Hell. His entry, titled How Fast a Brand Can Lose Its Power, equates the decay of Sosa's public image and credibility with that people and organizations beyond baseball can face if they mis-play their apparent strengths into weaknesses, or over-play the image they've built up.

Snippets of Yastrow's thoughts (go read the whole thing, though and check out the comments):

Rewind the clock to 1998, the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire. {SNIP} Sammy Sosa was just about the biggest, most meaningful brand in Chicago. {SNIP}

Fast forward to today: News of Sammy's trade to Baltimore. Fans interviewed on TV saying they're happy to see him go. The Cubs are paying a big chunk of his $17 million salary next year—for him to play on another team.

Things started to tail off in 2003 when Sammy was caught with a corked bat and suspended for 8 games, after which his performance suffered. This past season he missed a month with back problems. {SNIP}Then he walked out of the clubhouse and left the ballpark before the last game of the season started, because he was unhappy that he was dropped to a lower position in the batting order.

Beyond baseball, what's the lesson here? If the Brand Called Sammy can go from hero to persona non grata, just think what can happen to your company if you stop performing ... or get caught corking your bat!

The 1998 home run race between nice-guy McGwire and nice-guy Sosa had no villains, just two collegial examples of excellence-in-action both of whom acted with a lot of personal grace under the pressure. Sosa hit more homers than any player ever had until that year and still got blown away by McGwire's final number. And no matter that happened, Sammy Sosa just bathed in the glow of both accomplishments and didn't demand that he be the center of attention nor that his rival had somehow cheated by using supplements. Grace and a child-like, endorphin-drenched, sunny disposition made him one of the most popular figures in the Western Hemisphere, even beyond baseball fans. As Yastrow would say, he had established a Brand identity.

He had a troika of great years afterwards, though his trajectory since appears in statistical terms as a steady second line dance towards the graveyard. It is not, though, without significant accomplishment.

 1993 598 92 25 5 33 93 .261 .309 .485 .794  
 1994 426 59 17 6 25 70 .300 .339 .545 .884  
 1995 564 89 17 3 36 119 .268 .340 .500 .840  
 1996 498 84 21 2 40 100 .273 .323 .564 .888  
 1997 642 90 31 4 36 119 .251 .300 .480 .779  
 1998 643 134 20 0 66 158 .308 .377 .647 1.024  
 1999 625 114 24 2 63 141 .288 .367 .635 1.002  
 2000 604 106 38 1 50 138 .320 .406 .634 1.040  
 2001 577 146 34 5 64 160 .328 .437 .737 1.174  
 2002 556 122 19 2 49 108 .288 .399 .594 .993  
 2003 517 99 22 0 40 103 .279 .358 .553 .911  
 2004 478 69 21 0 35 80 .253 .332 .517 .849  
 Career 8021 1383 340 43 574 1530 .277 .348 .545 .892  

From BigLeaguers.Yahoo.Com

His decline was normal, starting with his age 33 season in 2002. It was, perhaps, sharper than average, but if you look up his career line on Baseball Reference, you'll see the player w/a career most similar to Sosa's through his age 35 season is Mickey Mantle...not exactly stale prune-whip. Even in his injury- and emotionally-turbulence filled 2004, his offensive production was 10% better than the league. He still, when he was on the field, ran out to & in from his position. He still tried to put on a show for the fans. His problems, except for the previous season's corked bat incident, were out of the public eye. They were, to some degree, outed by the press, with the press' own interpretation. It's important to remember (Sosa didn't) that the press can tinker with your image/Brand, interpreting events that happen behind closed doors, or at least away from the fans' view, and put their own spin on it. The press guys were tired of Sammy's Schtick. It's hard, year after year, to put up with the childish personality of a grown man. Yes, there's joy, but there's petulence, too.

The bat-corking is one of those things that hyper-competitors do to try to get an edge. Scientifically proven to add no significant distance to the hit ball (the effect is placebo -- all in the head of the batter), bat corking is the desperate act of a man-child who sees his numbers sinking with his aging career. It's incredibly foolish; it doesn't help you, but if you get caught, it can erode your credibility.

The unhelpful physics of bat-corking didn't matter to the public. They turned on him, and then the disputes with his manager made it worse. The childishness that so pleased them before now more commonly disturbed them. He seemed more truculent, moody, stubborn. But these personality traits are all part of the same constellation of behaviors that had won him their joyful adoration earlier. Love the sin, hate the sinner.

Every slugger, at least every childish one, carries within him the seeds of his own destruction, as Karl Marx, fan of the 1880 Cincinnati Reds and personal and ideological friend of the the White brothers (early baseball star, Red pitcher Will White formed a battery on that team with his own brother, liberation theologist Deacon White) said. The very élan and panache that made Sammy Sosa's brand powerful eroded it when his production naturally declined with age. I'm not telling you I would put up with dealing with that every day, but I have some sympathy for a man-child who gave a team 12 years, four of them nothing short of legendary, and changed little in his approach, but found his act no longer played 168 miles NNE of Peoria.

It's worth noting, the more eccentric or challenging you are as a personality, the easier it is to become "a celebrity" if you can produce at a high rate or convince people you can. But, please note, that same eccentricity becomes a lightning rod for vengeful or disturbed or naturally critical people as soon as your performance slips below the line of unquestionable. Donald Trump. Martha Stewart. Newt Gingrich, Danny Bonaduce. People, especially those who are disappointed in where they've gotten to in life, revel in taking down those they feel have gotten there.

You don't need to make excuses for Sosa to feel sorry for the situation he had found/had put himself in. As that well-known Reds fan said so long ago, every slugger, even one as great as Mickey Mantle or as good as Sammy Sosa, carries within him the seeds of his own destruction.

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