Saturday, June 04, 2005

Lou Piniella's Existential Fix:
When An Employer Recruits You with Lies  

"There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and
anything a baseball team owner says." -- Benjamin "Boots" Disraeli

As managers, no job is quite like our first one. We bring with us tools we used before (usually a good thing, though sometimes we insist on using old successful tools that don't work in the new context. We bring baggage...things we just know we don't want to do or allow to happen again.

There's a tendency in baseball for teams to replace a manager viewed as currently unsuccessful with a polar opposite. The "nice guy" with the "disciplinarian" and vice versa, the "quiet tactician" with the "voluble firebrand" and vice versa. This is not an approach that guarantees failure...the Law of Problem Evolution means there's some virtue in it, but it's usually done for emotional reasons and is reactive and simplistic -- therefore almost never optimal.

There's a parallel tendency among managers. When we leave a job, we have a list of things we're determined to have or avoid on the next one. We may overlook the overall utility of the position because some bad reaction we had to our last gig makes us lose perspective. My friend Chris was so peeved by being micro-managed by an entrepreneur who knew almost nothing about Chris' specialty, that he jumped at the first job that offered him autonomy and decisionmaking power...in a disasterously incompetent organization he was in no position to save. My buddy Eric worked at an organization where he was so unappreciated, he grabbed the first organization that had the core value of recognizing success with public arm waving --- but they stiffed him (along with everyone else) on his commission.

And I don't know why, but an extraordinary number of bad business owners and executives seem to have a knack for tapping into this need and fooling a manager into taking a job she shouldn't. Sometimes that technique is malicious, but usually it's just the hiring person's desire to get the job filled or get your talents on board.

But sometimes the hiring person is (a) a liar, and (b) is so narcissistic he believes it doesn't matter as long as the lies get him his way. Sometimes that person owns the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Lou Piniella found this out, much to his current existential panic.

If you know Piniella's managerial history, skip this next section down to the next header, otherwise, it has background you'll need to understand how he got to the Devil Rays.

Piniella started his managerial career with the same team he played most for, the New York Yankees, in 1986. He was learning his craft, wasn't great, and did not elevate the team. Working for the functionally-sociopathic George Steinbrenner, he got halfway through his third season before getting fired.

His second gig was with the 75-87 Cincinnati Reds, whose managing partner was The Savage Pinhead (Marge Schott), an angry narcissist. In his first year, he not only took the team to the World Series, but won it against a significantly superior team, the Oakland A's. He had a good, not great team, and Schott had lead him to believe she'd have a healthy budget. Schott believed that since the team won the Series, they were already good enough. A combination of their signing of trivial players (equal parts bad executive judgement and tight budget and The Savage Pinhead's oddball race theory rants which disincented non-Aryan ballplayers from playing for the team) and the difficulties of working with Schott convinced Piniella to try his chops as a turnaround artist again, this time with the Seattle Mariners.

The Mariners were coming off a 64-98 win season, & had never finished above .500. In his first season with the team, they broke that monotony with an 82-80. Within a few years, thanks to some good 1st round draft picks, some other good front line players, and a super collection of rôle players, they became a team that could contend, and get into, the playoffs. But the formula changed. The team got a new mallpark and the consortium of businessmen who owned the team realized they could actually make money with the franchise. They wanted to expert a financial discipline that competing owners didn't rank as highly. They came to view their Goal as making money or at least breaking even. Thus, their bottom line was money, while the intense Piniella's was still wins, playoffs, a World Series trophy.

It's a fact I won't try to prove that the higher your team's current win percentage is over about .550, the more incremental cost it takes to add a win to your record. It costs better teams more to become even better than it costs mediocre teams to become somewhat better than mediocre. General rule: Available talent at the top of the performance curve costs more per added torque than the available talent that's at the middle. So after their remarkable 2001 season, Mariner ownership was satisfied with their level of performance, and having done the benefit/cost calculations, realized that getting better was more expensive than staying competitive. The managing partner did not then know much about the game either -- he was a successful high-tech executive who had worked for a long time at an extremely successful company that was almost a monopoly -- and so shipping good-enough product was good enough while the added costs of achieving excellence couldn't be easily recovered financially.

The team stagnated. Getting older, they had a couple of shots at getting more competitive before the core faded, and they made it into the late Summer as playoff contenders. The ever-competitive Piniella (no other player I know of every tried to kill --really...not drama for the crowd -- the San Diego Chicken because he took the Chicken's hex seriously) campaigned for "trade deadline" acquisitions in late July to bolster the team's on-the-edge chances. But the team's P&L, not winning incrementally more games, was the priority. They stood pat with their roster and failed to get to the Series. The team's frustrated general manager took early retirement, and Piniella had enough and looked for a new gig.

Piniella was determined to find a team that wasn't organizationally where he had come from. As a recognized celeb, and a manager with success to point to in both leagues, he was an attractive comodity. Several teams recruited him or expressed interest, including the New York Mets. But he was originally from Tampa, and his wife preferred living there and he still maintained a sense of home about the place. So when Vince Naimoli, owner of the metro area's sorry expansion franchise with the history of losing badly, showed enthusiasm, Piniella showed interest

Naimoli apparently told Piniella he would ante up and increase the team budget, lowest then in the majors, and give Piniella some voice in staffing. With a crop of promising young players in the pipeline and already on the roster getting playing time (an essential element required for most players to blossom), Lou could visualize replicating his Cincinnati turnaround, or at least his Seattle turnaround. Glue in a few well-chosen parts through free agency or perhaps the trade of some excess youngsters, combine it with his experience at kicking some butts and inspiring some previously-medium performers, and one could imagine surprising the world with a .500 team. And in one's hopes, if the budget grew a little with success, why even a wild card might be possible. Naimoli's promises were exactly what Lou wanted to hear -- the exact opposite of what he was trying to escape.

Given the promises, the manager accepted the job. But in his second season, the Devil Rays had a surprising start. They were 40-38 by July 3. Piniella wanted the owner to make the mid-season moves the team required to get to the next level, some good vets to go with his over-achieving youngsters. The benefits aren't even just winning in the now, but reinforcing the idea of being winners, of getting to learn lessons from peers, of sensing there's momentum, of "learning to win".

By Naimoli was lying. There was no investment, no cavalry to change the balance. The team collapsed, going 30-51 for the remainder of the season, including a 12-game losing streak. Now the team, in Piniella's third year, is swirling the drain, in last place again and no hope. Some details about Piniella's views from this story:

"This is going to be a difficult year here, sir," Piniella says late one night in his Tropicana Field office. "This is not a year for contending." {SNIP}

Unfortunately, little has gone the way Piniella hoped since his arrival in Tampa Bay before the 2003 season. He returned to his Tampa roots with a fat four-year contract and a grand vision of winning where no one else seemingly could. Through the sheer power of his personality, armed with the undeniable force of his competitive fire, Piniella would cut through all the dysfunction and make the lowly Rays a contender in the American League East.

"I'm not a passive guy that's just going to sit and watch and see the same things over and over and over again," he told me in March 2003. "I'm just not. That's just not my nature." He also spoke of "changing the mentality" and refusing to let his young players "get used to losing" and how "you've got to fight it every day." He sounded quite convincing.

A little over two years later, Piniella strikes a very different tone when discussing his lousy team.

The payroll still sags way down at $30 million, easily the lowest in the majors. So much for the promises managing general partner Vince Naimoli made during a whirlwind courtship that kept Piniella from pushing harder to join the New York Mets instead. {SNIP}

Pitching? The Rays, with the second-worst run differential in the majors, don't have much of that, either.

Opening Day starter Dewon Brazelton? He was sent back to the minors last week after losing for the 11th time in 12 decisions.

Before his final start, Brazelton walked into his manager's office for a pep talk. Only it wasn't the typical Sweet Lou treatment of flashing eyes and machismo-dripping rhetoric. "I told him it's not life or death," Piniella says. "He'll still get a paycheck, you know? He's still going to get a paycheck and his mom is going to still love him. It's not the end of the world."

Wait a second ... huh?

"Don't think of it as wins and losses," Piniella continues, recounting the conversation. "Think of it as going out there to have some fun and I'm going to go out there and compete."

Oh, I get it. A group of alien body snatchers must have replaced Piniella's spirit with Dr. Phil's. Losing will do that to a man. Even one as seemingly indomitable as Sweet Lou.

There have been 217 losses in the two-plus seasons since Piniella got to Tampa Bay, and there will be plenty more before he leaves. Ask him about the progress of the grand plan, and he stares back blankly.

"I don't know what the grand plan is," Piniella says softly. "I've learned to condition myself here to one game at a time. I can't -- I won't -- allow myself to look out into the future and I don't look into the past. It's tomorrow's ballgame, and that's it. Do the best we can tomorrow."

He looks away and glances around the empty room, perhaps considering a life unkind. "I don't know what the grand plan is," he says again. "I really don't."

Piniella seems to be coping by disconnecting. That can work temporarily, but is a poor strategy longer-term. Subsuming one's competitive edge and just taking the paycheck is very hard, even on the most self-aware & mellow person, and Piniella is not very self-aware nor mellow in the slightest (ask the San Diego Chicken).

And to compound it, it's not just "the now" that's got him down, it's hope for the future and the lack of his faith in executive management to be able to change their behavior. According to this Larry Stone story for The Seattle Times from a couple of Sundays ago:

Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella told Sports Illustrated that, at age 61, he burns to win another World Series.

"I'm running out of time, running out of time," Piniella said. "[Washington's] Frank Robinson, he's what, gonna turn 70? I don't want to be managing when I'm 70. I want one more chance to manage a club that can go to the World Series. Here or elsewhere."

Contrasting the Mariners and Rays, Piniella told SI, "In Seattle we had smart owners, from Microsoft and Boeing, and we'd meet regularly and talk about what we needed to do to win and how our payroll should grow."

He was asked if the Rays have similar sessions.

"Not much."

Mariner ownership looks better to him, in retrospect. Whether they chose to make moves or not, they at least made a study of what was necessary. Lou's palpable bitterness is amplified because he chose to get into this assignment that has turned into a hole, and because it was a promise broken. SIDE NOTE: He used his Sports Illustrated platform here (bolded text) to campaign nationwide for a better job...smart.

When I was very early in my managerial career, I took employers as honest with their word until proven otherwise (lowest effort). Later I came to believe if you talked it all out and made sure they told you what they really wanted and you made clear what you really wanted, it would work out. Later, I advanced my methods. If I had the slightest doubt at all that it might work out, I asked them to put it on paper and we'd both sign it.

In the early 90s, I left a job at a place that had been gone from being a quality-oriented manufacturer to a low-margin commodity seeker. The executive team brought in by the venture folk were under-experienced in our sector but determined, like a three year old boy in his parent's parked car, to play with all the knobs and dials and controls...to feel like they were in charge. I was running a marketing department filled with excellent talent, but not allowed to make any decision of more import than office supplies reordering. So when I was ready to move on, I just wanted to work for someone who either knew so much about marketing they could teach me, or someone who knew so little they would know they knew little.

I cleverly found the company, a software developer with super products, fading margin, great reputation, internal inefficiencies, and clever owners who had the worst marketing in the entire time zone. This was easy. Turnarounds don't get easier because they had a product customers required, and respect from them. At the same time, the limiting factor for them was the very thing I would have the power to change -- and even if I just used cheap resources to get them to C+, it would be a giant advance (Baseball lesson already mentioned: The resources you need to get from F to C+ are smaller than the resources you need to get from B+ to A-).

In my preliminary conversations with the negotiating owner, it became apparent he had some preconceptions, some of which were the reasons they had such putrid, amateur marketing. He thought marketing was a euphemism for sales (and it is in some palces). I corrected him and explained I was not a sales person by nature or by training or by tendency or by appetite. Worst, from his point of view as a buyer of talent, I had close to zero aptitude for sales. We talked and talked. There was some risk for me in working for his company-- I would have to move about 400 miles. I finally drew up a Memorandum of Understanding stating everything and asked him to initial each point and that we could sign it...not as a contract, but as an expression of our agreement. He wriggled and wriggled, but I held fast and he finally signed.

I reported for my first day about a week later and the first thing he did was tell me he wanted me to build a schedule for sales calls all over the region. I countered I needed time for planning and executing marketing and it soon became apparent from his words he had no intention of letting me do marketing. He had hired me to do sales.

I mentioned the memorandum. "Oh that, that's just a piece of paper," he said with a little twinkle in his eye, as though I could share in the joke with him.

I gave them a year for family reasons, but by month four it was apparent there was no hoipe for this working out. They had terrible marketing in part because they had a tin ear for it, but also, in part, because they would rather sit behind the steering wheel of the car truned off and pretend they were driving.

How I ever allowed myself, knowing what I knew, to go from from the frying pan into the next, parallel frying pan, is beyond me. How Piniella did the exact same thing probably a bigger mystery to me.

How long do you think you could hang around in his job, knowing you were managing the worst, lowest-funded team and that was okay with the owner? What would you do to trun it around, if anyhting? What would you do to get through the day? How could he have avoided it and how can you?

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