Saturday, March 01, 2008

What You Know Can't Kill You:
The Third Base Management Genius of Sandy Koufax  

When you give a genius, especially one with accountable measures to define the magnitude of his or her accomplishments, a chance to manage or mentor others, it usually fails. When it does fail, it's usually a function of what I call "The Frank Robinson Rule".

The factors that make genius what it is are not just the factors that make someone very good in much greater quantity -- it's different factors. Geniuses that don't internalize that fact & act on it are doomed to expect their charges, even their most already-successful achievers, to conform to the genius' own pattern of accomplishments, and using the same paths to get there.

Frank Robinson, one of the top 20 players of the 20th century, is my poster dude for this problem. I've written before in detail about how his seemingly-effortless journey to being one of the great players of all time made his growth as a manager such a steep learning curve to ascend. The essence of the deal, quoting from the article at that link, is this:

Early in his managerial career, Robbie's Achilles Heel was that he was so much better than any player who ever played for him. Robbie seemed to have a hard time dealing with the mere mortals who were just very good. Like many managers beyond baseball who have come up through the ranks based on their extraordinary skills and not just on being the boss' son or knack for smooth inner-circle politics, being naturally brilliant is not a free pass to being a good manager. In fact, it's more often a wind-drag.

The early managerial Robinson couldn't imagine what it was like to struggle like heck to achieve at half the Robbie level. Lots of managers outside of baseball have this challenge. Sometimes it's because they were promoted specifically because they were so good at their position. Sometimes, it's because the new manager is just a super-smart person.

So it was with pleasure I read David Lennon's article at Newsday about Sandy Koufax responding to a request by New York Mets' reliever Billy Wagner to come to the team's spring training facility. While Koufax, perhaps the highest-impact left-handed starter in 20th century baseball, explained he was glad to go and work with the pitchers who wanted it, he also said explicitly he knew it might or might not have any value for each of the individuals he worked with.

Wagner specifically was looking for help with developing a curveball, and Koufax -- who threw one of the most spectacular overhand curveballs in major-league history -- said he mostly talked the "philosophy" of the pitch with the Mets' closer.

"If somebody wants to get better and I think I can help them, then it's a pleasure," said Koufax, 72. "I don't do it unless somebody asks me to do it, and if I help them, great. If I don't, I tell them it's an experiment. If it doesn't work for you, forget it. For it to work, you have to be comfortable. I don't have all the answers to anything."

Not according to Wagner and Martinez, who -- like just about everyone else -- listen to Koufax as if he invented the game. "I've known Sandy off and on for 12 years," Wagner said. "He's really about the only lefty I can talk to and go, 'Hey, what am I doing?' and kind of have somebody who kind of connects with me. When I pitch, he knows what I'm about. And he has a lot of good ideas. A lot of things I'm able to do, and a lot of things I'm not able to do. He has a wealth of experience. If you can tap in just a little bit, it's something you treasure."

Unlike the early Mensa-jero Robinson, Mensa-jero Koufax knows how to package a genius' message: I don't have the answers to everything. He's not going to teach Wagner to use the Koufax mechanics that were so successful for him. He's going to step back from that to the big picture that was so effective for him when he pitched in the 1960s and hope (not promise) that an analogous approach will work for Wagner.

One of the most seductive things a mentor or teach has to face in any field, Baseball or beyond, is escaping the trap of people listening to uncritically to what one says. When it happens often enough, the mentor listens to herself less well, losing some ability to be self-critical. For the genius (even the genius who is smart enough to realize just about everyone on the planet knows something valuable the genius doesn't), the most valuable criticism he can receive is self-criticism. and that requires self-awareness, the Third Base on the Management by Baseball diamond. Self-awareness for the very highest individual achievers is a very difficult thing to come by -- like a pitcher, a high achiever is generally the centre of attention, and it's easy for that genius to accept the adulation without an ongoing examination.

Koufax is as effective at self-awareness as he was at pitch selection, that is, a champ.

If you dig down into the Newsday piece, you'll see hints that Pedro Martínez, another extraordinary all-time impact pitcher, shares this trait with Koufax.

Martinez, who grew up in the Dodgers' organization, remembers meeting Koufax and Don Drysdale as a 17-year-old prospect. Koufax's affection for Martinez was obvious as he talked about him, and Martinez, despite his own Hall of Fame resume, continues to be in awe of Koufax.

"Sandy's words were the first words I heard in Dodgertown," Martinez said. "The things he talked about stuck in my mind about perseverance and following your dreams and don't let it go -- ever. Those things have stuck with me. I like to spend time with him still.

"I never realized I was being compared to him. He's such a big name, such a dominant pitcher. I never thought I could ever be a flash of what he is. Now after a few years, people try to make comparisons. To me, there isn't ... My admiration doesn't even let me stand beside him any more than as a student to a teacher, and that's what he is to me, a teacher who you respect a lot and get along really well with."

On the surface, it sounds like humility (as Koufax' own statements do), but really it's much deeper than that. It's observation of and empathy with the world outside one's self.

It appears Roger Clemens, a pitcher with roughly the resume of Sandy & Pedro (longer achievement, a lower peak), doesn't have this ingredient. It doesn't affect his ability to pitch very successfully - it just makes him a very self-referential, perhaps self-reverential, person. For many, this came as a revelation last week when he took this inability to examine his own behavior from outside himself and conducted himself in ways that made many people recoil and about as many believe he was lying in his testimony to Congress.

The Mensa types, whether in physics, literary criticism, making money or in Baseball almost always face challenges when they try to share their techniques or insights with those who are, like successful major league players, in the 97th percentile. And for those below that, it's harder still.

So when a Koufax surfaces as having self-awareness to go along with the professional credentials, it's almost a miracle, and certainly something to treasure.

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