Monday, May 25, 2009

Provoking Thought by Baseball...
Gender-Targeted Style  

From an anthropological perspective, one of the most amusing aspects of the American culture's marketing subculture is the idea that gender (in this case, male<--->female) makes for great marketing. In small, pre-industrial societies, the concept is very powerful. In large, diverse, cultures where the means of communication have been industrialized and work categories are less strictly gender-based, the differences (for marketing purposes) between males and females is blunted.

That hasn't stopped the publishing industry from pursuing the idea that almost any idea worth peddling is worth trying to squeeze into a category. Oh, yes, very few of my female friends would take a free subscription to Maxim (but not none of them); and few of my male friends would either. But both would agree Australian Handyman is the best-ever read. So books frequently get targeted by publishers for gender-specific audiences, and this trend gets enhanced by authors making pitches to publishers...because the authors realize the publishers will be more inclined to take a bite at their positioned pitch.

On the other hand, Baseball is wonderfully gender-neutral. Women constitute roughly 46% of game attendees, & that's the largest proportion of female fans for any of the big professional sports. (and for those of you who want to suggest, "well, it's still not half", I challenge you to discern the difference between 45% and 50% in eyeballing the crowd specifics at the next MLB game you attend)

In spite of that, there are a matched set of gender-specific gender-directed Baseball books, and both are well worth reading by both women and men, if the underlying subject is of interest.

The new one is Parables from the Diamond, a devotional-without-calendar by preacher Phil Christopher & journalist Glenn Dromgoole, subtitled Meditations for Men on Baseball & Life. Each of the one-page essays has a title, a quotation, some reminder about a life issue and a thumbnail reminder. For example, "It Was 'Almost' a Home Run" or "A Broken Bat Still Has Value" reminds the reader that sometimes 'almost' is useless, and that once things pass from one state to another, they have value for different purposes.

The book is targeted to men, specifically, and Baptists in particular. Maybe the authors wanted it that way as part of their faith; maybe the publisher wanted it because they wanted the marketing boost or were ignorant about the broad span of women's interest in the sport. But almost all the insights have meditative value for women and men both, and for non-Baptists (like me) as much as anyone else. Because lessons in Baseball are so embedded in the intellectual and ethical/moral structures of most people in the baseball-mad countries of the Americas, tying back to Baseball for enlightening perspective has every bit as much value as non-faith based devotionals as tying Management lessons back to Baseball has for readers of this weblog.

I recommend the book, a gentle reminder of important life lessons I rarely write about, focusing on the Management, not Big Life Issues, insight Baseball has to offer. Of course, there are exceptions when I wax philosophic about Big Life Lessons.

Jackie Koney & Dierdre Silva finally published their mega-year, mega-publisher book, It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls' Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball, designed to help other women get up to speed on the game's mechanics and history. I've met the authors at SABR meetings and ballpark events before, and their writing is engaging and smart. So why is it aimed at women, not people-in-general? Well, I suspect the gender-specifying lust of publishers is a part of it, but among men who don't know about baseball, how many of them will admit they need lessons or background? Sheet, there are male guys in SABR who need lessons but pretend they're experts.

Ergo, I heartily recommend Silva & Koney's book (or ballpark outings) for any novice you know who needs or wants to know more about the game; it's witty, informative and endorsed by Cal Ripken Jr. which is not something I can say about my own book.

Whether it takes balls or more than balls, there's always a marketing idea worth stretching. And if there's a worthwhile book or two behind it, well, that's magic. Because Baseball, Management and Life all take balls, and all take more than balls.

...for you on this Memorial Day. A heart-rending memo (if yer in a rush, skip the prologue & scroll straight down to the memo) about the deprivations suffered by U.S. REMF troops in Iraq we all have to hope have been addressed forcefully. And it will help guide your own conduct towards the troops returning from Iraq who may be suffering from one or more of the problems delineated.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Joe Maddon: When Genius Screws Up,
It's Time to Tighten the Screws  

She had an unequalled gift... of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.
-- Henry James (Bill James' brother)

The prologue to today's horsehide struggle between the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays, featured Rays manager Joe Maddon & his staff making a big, honking, impossible-to-hide error. Now, given that a manager in Baseball makes a couple of hundred decisions per game, it's never gonna happen that a manager will get through a whole game without making a less-than-optimal decision and beyond extraordinary when none of those decisions turn out to have been in error. Just as in your own management experience, most of these turn out to be negative but not catastophic decisions (think Pat Bööne's heavy metal album w/the leather-drenched cover of Guns 'n Roses' Paradise City).

But sometimes errors are not reversible and you have to live with them for a while. This is infuriating, especially the bureaucratic errors of protocol. So when the Rays handed the home plate umpire a line-up card for the day with both intended 3rd-baseman Ben Zöbrist designated as the 3rd baseman and Evan Longöria, the Rays' (most-days 3rd baseman but) intended DH for the day also designated as the 3rd baseman, there was a mandatory heck to pay once the first pitch of the game thrown with the error uncorrected.

The rule imposes the toll: The offending team loses its designated hitter for the day. The pitcher, Adny Sonnanstine, had to (gulp) hit for himself. The St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin reported it as it happened, with all the intrinsic confusion you normally get. And the blogosphere and my buddy Jon Wells (a remarkable guy...both entrepreneur/publisher/editor of Grand Salami, the independent Mariner magazine I wrote a column for & one of the unheralded rugby greats of his sub-generation) got their knickers in a twist because the managerial talent I've sometimes called a genius, Joe Maddon, had made an ugly error.

Worse, Sonnanstine had to bat third, a severe dis-optimization of a lineup. Oh, the rending of garments and hysteria...Oh, The Inhumanity.

¿So how did the Rays & Maddon proceed?

To kick axe, that's how. Because in business, as in Baseball, it doesn't pay to overblow the anxiety or fear or sadness when you've blown it.

As I write this, the game isn't over yet, but it looks like the Rays (up 7-3) have a fair chance of winning it. If they end up winning (or losing for that matter), I can bet you Joe Maddon will be self-deprecating and funny in his post-game confab gab n' chew with the press. And tomorrow will be another game, another chance to make an avoidable mistake.

And, btw, Sonnanstine, batting third, had an RBI double in the 4th inning, kinda par for the course for him, even without advance notice he was gonna hit for himself. Sonnanstine batted in two games in 2007, and in his first game, went 2-for-3 with an RBI. His first game as a batter in 2008, he went 2-for-3 with an RBI. Maybe he'll repeat today.

I do think these kinds of opportunities come up all the time in business and government. And to a significant degree, our success as managers hinges on how we handle these (inevitable) moments and how we keep the team involved & loose.

I've seen a sales team or two fold like a cheap Made in Red China By Slave Labor card table the last week of a quarter when it's been apparent they wouldn't make a quota-based bonus. Laying back a little is not always bad, if they use the time to gather up their forces to plan how they are going to succeed and get a little rest in, but in general, forging ahead and playing to win/succeed is usually least as good and frequently a lot better.

It's worth noting how often screw-ups happen even to the best managers. And it's well worth noting how some managers regularly come out of these with their cause intact, while others, perhaps equally-error avoidant, have such situations degenerate to bad final results.

Personally, I'm not sure of the reason, but I know Maddon is one of the good managers who seems to more often survive the Bartman moments. Until I'm sure, my inclination is that it's his relentless but mature attitude combined with his (and his organization's) team-building methods that accentuate how challenges are inevitable but are to be faced head on as a group. So when the management/coaching combine screwed up, the team came together to tighten the screws on what they could make a difference with, the game itself.

I believe that attitude and method would work just as well for you in your own endeavor. Put a little Maddon in your Methods.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Doug Glanville, The $250 Million Eddie Haskell
& The 21st Century Ghost Dance  

The regularly insightful Doug Glanville usually casts new light on old subjects, and that's great. But his last op-ed for the New York Times actually uncovered a baseball technique I never ran across or read about (greater), though I've seen it a lot in business and the military. And why it seems to be overshadowed in this Moment of Manny Métier Meltdown is very illuminating about the state of our National Psyche.

But first to the practice. Glanville calls it "tipping," though it's not the pitcher inadvertently giving away what kind 'o pitch it's going to be ("tipping his pitches"), nor is it a runner on second base reading the catcher's signs and relaying them to the batter. It's related but different practice that instead of being designed to give your own team and advantage, it's a Hal Chase, designed to help someone on the opposition do better against your own team, albeit in a small way. 

Here's his explanation of the normal Baseball practice:

Tipping pitches involves watching your opponent like a well-trained code-breaker. It most often happens when there is a runner at second base, where he is in a unique position to steal any signs the catcher is relaying to the pitcher — so well positioned, in fact, that catchers and pitchers have a special set of signs for that situation. We all know the basic signs — one finger for fastball, two fingers for curve. But with a runner on second, the real sign may be the one right after an indicator: for example, it could be the first sign after the catcher puts down three fingers, or the second sign after he wiggles all of his fingers.

Apart from the pitcher and the runner on second, the two people who can see those signs best are the middle infielders — the shortstop and the second baseman. They are both busybodies, moving around, trying to pick off the runner, giving signs to each other regarding who should cover on a steal or a double play started from a ball hit back to the pitcher.

So, as he goes on to say, the infielders read the signs and subtly telegraph each other and if the batter can catch these signals, she can steal them and have a good guess of what the pitch is going to be (unless the pitcher is Edinson Vólquez, but that's a different story). But now unleash Alex Rodríguez, the $250 Million Eddie Haskell, on tipping and you get something mondo different:

...according to the latest story, Alex is connected to some pitch-tipping scheme in which he relayed signs to the opposing hitter (if he was a friend) or for someone who would return the favor when he was hitting. This was supposedly done in one-sided games where, in theory, one team had no chance of catching up. Alex was said to be in cahoots with a lot of middle infielders (my addition for clarity: on other teams). Allegedly, there was some sign he would relay to the hitter — a movement with his glove or his feet — to let the hitter know what type of pitch was coming and where.

Although I have never heard such a rumor about Alex, this may be one of the most egregious charges one can make against a player, and a rare one at that. Should a player know that someone in his own dugout is helping the opposing team, I would venture to say that all-out Armageddon would ensue. Imagine if a pitcher knew that his pitches were being given away to the opposing hitter by his own teammate no less. This spy would have to watch his back*.

* - As if he didn't have to already. 

This practice, of screwing over the employing organization for small gains is as universal as doing shopping at the PX for civilian friends or pilfering small quantities of office supplies. It happens on a larger scale, as well. 

I had a German manufacturing client a while back and HQ came to suspect that their U.S. group was fibbing about their productivity. While I hadn't done any work for them for a while, they asked me to go back East and check out the factory and the office records. Sure enough, the numbers were a bald-faced lie. Not immense, not crushing, but a scheme bigger than paperclip pilferage, designed to harvest cool, noticeable bonuses for most everyone on the floor and in the offices, and under the presumption that HQ "could afford it". And because the ownership was "foreign" the us/them effect got inflated. The U.S. management cooked it up to inflate their apparent value and the U.S. line workers were silent (if they even knew the numbers were juiced...which I think at least some did know) in exchange for a small but noticeable bonus in their pocket.

It's lazy thinking, weak ethics, but rarely reaches a level that it brings down an otherwise healthy organization. But in fact, this rarely happens in healthy organizations -- the very fact that employees are comfortable doing this either says something about them (that they're willing to undermine their meal ticket for chump change -- meaning they were bad hires, meaning it's probably an unhealthy organization), or about the organization (that it's stingy with the help out of proportion to how much it should be, meaning it's not a healthy organization).

The internal logic of this Tragedy of the Commons is the same as the alleged A-Rod practice: that it's for a friend and it almost certainly won't make any difference to his own team, but it could make a lot of difference to the co-conspirators.

Glanville, btw, goes on to say that when he played outfield behind Rodríguez he never noticed this happening, and doesn't assert he knows it to be anything more than an allegation made in a recent Selena Roberts book and Sports Illustrated story.

And that is where I am on the allegation: uncertain. Being the Eddie Haskell that he is, I could see him stealing paperclips without much guilt. But otoh, he's incredibly competitive, and coughing up an occasional hit when one might ultimately affect a game's outcome strikes me as not an act a competitive person at this level will commit, even to gain a friend. 

But to me, the more surprising thing about the story is not that it might be true. It's the reaction (or rather relative-lack-of-reaction) to it.

Allegation: Rodríguez cheats to help his performance and his team's and his teammates by taking banned (or not yet banned, but clearly cheesy) substances.
General Response: Gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair. Sophoclean dren.

Allegation: Rodríguez is in a scheme that aims to cheat his own team and teammates.
General Response: <one hand clapping>

I think under increasing cultural stress, as the U.S. has been for about 25 years, with broad, now recognized, corporate & governmental (and probably personal, too) lying, people have become so emotional and cynical about their interactions with institutions that they won't see what's in plain sight. The arm-waving is much more severe for the performance-enhancing drugs than for Hal Chase stuff. It seems like they expect their government & its corporate contractors to sell arms for hostages or torture and lie about it, to juice allegedly scientific reports to benefit friends or allies, but at the same time they can get upset about ugly but trivial peccadilloes, as though if they could just banish performance-enhancing substances different from those available Back In the Good Old Days, we'd all revert and the Earth would belch back all the lost home values and stock prices and cheap gasoline and an Octomom who didn't look exactly like Stephen Tyler.

It's pure Crisis Cult stuff.

Ghost Dance, anyone?

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