Tag Archives: baseball

The Fundamentals

I was watching the College World Series the other night. My Wolverines are in the final with a chance to win a very surprising national championship (they weren’t supposed to get this far). Go Blue!

Many of the articles attributed their success to great pitching and that’s something whose importance you can never overstate in my opinion. However, there is one other factor I noticed in watching this team that’s applicable to any business. This team has been well-coached in the fundamentals. Let me explain.

Bunting is a lost art in baseball. It’s attempted in many of the major league games I watch and is rarely executed perfectly. Maybe I’m yearning for the age when Phil Rizzuto would school the Yankee teams on bunting (he was among the best ever at it) but I’ve now seen Michigan lay down several perfect bunts on the correct side of the plate based on the situation and the defense. That’s knowing and practicing the fundamentals.

They run the bases well and don’t make bad decisions. Sure, a coach is involved in the decision, but if you don’t hit the bases in stride and run with your head up you’ll miss the “stop/go” signal. They are not too anxious at the plate, often running the pitcher deep into the count. Over time, that has an impact and the more pitches you see, the greater the likelihood that you’ll get one you like. Again, these are fundamentals.

The same holds true in your business. How well schooled is your staff – or are you – in the fundamentals of your operation? Does everyone understand how you are creating value for your customers and your enterprise? Since, as Eisenhower said, the plan may be useless but planning is essential, is everyone involved in that fundamental process? You probably use a lot of industry-specific terms in your office. Does everyone fully understand them and speak your language fluently?

As managers, our job is to make sure that the team has the skills to perform and that skill almost always relies on some fundamentals. Teach them, practice them, and make sure that they’re executed perfectly every time. Like this Michigan team, you’re probably going to overperform and get unexpectedly great results. Make sense?

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You Need Scouts

I don’t think there has been a baseball movie made that didn’t feature some weathered old guy seated in the bleachers somewhere.  He usually utters undecipherable baseball jargon while taking copious notes.  This, dear reader, is the baseball scout, who used to be how talent was discovered.  If you’ve seen or read Moneyball, you know that the scout is an endangered species.  This article from USA Today last week talks about how many pro scouts are still unemployed one month before the start of spring training.  The reason?  Data.

Photo by Justin Lafferty 00:19, 7 December 200...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baseball is in the throes of the Moneyball movement.  Teams have been laying off scouts and turning to sabermetrics, which Wikipedia defines as the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.  Baseball has fallen in love with data.  Maybe your business has too.

Here is the problem, both for you and for baseball.  There are certain things that don’t show up in data.  A player’s leadership qualities in the dugout aren’t quantifiable.  Potential can often be visible but not measurable.  That’s true in your office as well.  The data may show you what it happening but it’s hard for it to show you what could be happening.  That requires humans: scouts.

We all need scouts.  We need people who use the data as a tool but who also have the experience and wisdom to know when the data is missing something.  That doesn’t mean projecting one’s wishes into the numbers nor distorting the story those numbers tell.  It is, however, an acknowledgment that there is often a bigger picture than what’s inside the frame.

Here is a quote from a scout:

I’ve got 23 years in the business,’’ Wren said, “and now clubs don’t want that experience? I look at teams now, and they’re hiring guys who aren’t really scouts. They’re sabermetric guys from the office, and they put them in the field like they’re scouts, just to give them a consensus of opinion.

That’s dangerous for a baseball team.  It could be fatal for you.  You’re up!


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What’s Wrong With Small Ball?

We’re getting close to the start of baseball season. It’s always felt like a time of renewal – Spring has arrived (despite snow on opening day from time to time) and that’s a very good thing in my book. I grew up playing the game and it’s always intrigued me how baseball metaphors run throughout life here in the US of A.

Matt Wieters blocks home plate from Derek Jeter.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the baseball terms on my mind these days is “small ball.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to a strategy of getting men on base and advancing them through a series of hits or walks rather than placing an emphasis on home runs or big plays.  To me it’s a great business strategy these days and here is why. Business is filled with what I call “Rob Deers”.

In his prime, Rob Deer weighed about 210 and there were many seasons where he barely hit his weight.  Nevertheless, he was a valuable member of 5 different major league teams because he hit home runs.  A lot.  In fact, he would often appear as a league leader in both home runs and strike outs.  Go big or go home personified, I guess.  A lot of businesses think like Rob Deer.  They’re after the home run and while they might strike out a lot when they connect it’s a big win.  The problem with that is that there are also a lot of lean times in between.

I prefer to do business more like Derek Jeter.  Lead the league in hits and in runs scored.  That’s small ball personified.  Sure, hitting one over the wall is fun and almost everyone does that from time to time.  But unlike baseball, in business one isn’t assured of another game tomorrow if we don’t produce today.  Playing small ball in business isn’t heroic but it can be profitable.  The notion that it’s just as difficult to land a small order as it is to land a big one might be true but I’ve found that there are far fewer opportunities and far more competition as the size of the deal grows.

Don’t think for a minute this is about lowering standards.  It’s hard to play small ball well since it requires team work and a squad of folks who can hit the ball.  Managing that activity well requires someone special.  You?

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The Old Perfessor

I’ve been going through a bunch of old baseball cards, trying to figure out their values.  The exercise is generating a wave of nostalgia as old names, faces, and statistics surface.  There are an awful lot of cards here from the N.Y. Mets in particular, and of course no discussion of the Mutts (as I lovingly call them) would be complete without mentioning one Charles Dillon Stengel, their first manager.

English: New York Yankees manager Casey Stenge...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Casey Stengel was a decent ballplayer himself (batting .284 over 14 major league seasons) but he was a Hall of Fame manager. We can argue about whether any idiot could have made it to Cooperstown managing the Yankees during the 1949-1960 dynasty era but one can’t deny the achievement of winning the World Series five times in a row.  After managing the best team in baseball, Casey did a 180 and went to manage the worst.  The 1962 Mets were just as world-class as the Yankees except they were a world-class comedy act.

It’s 50 years later and Casey probably isn’t the most-quoted Mets manager.  That would probably Yogi Berra, although most of his famous quotes come from his days as a player, not a manager.  Casey was renowned for his monologues on baseball history and tactics which became known as “Stengelese” to sportswriters. This was also why he was called  “The Old Professor”.

I think we in business can learn a lot from a few of Casey’s key quotes.  The first one is one of my favorites:

Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.

This is probably the biggest challenges managers – baseball and otherwise – face.  In fact, I think this is the entire nature of the managerial job in a single phrase.  Next, a lesson on social media and customer service:

The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.

In other words, reputation management is something we can’t ignore.  Today it’s almost impossible to keep those two segments apart so controlling the message and minimizing the first segment is critical.

You gotta lose ’em some of the time. When you do, lose ’em right.

The Yankees were always spoken of as a “classy”organization.  I’ve always felt that a big measure in business is your reputation among people who choose not to buy from you at a particular point but who come back and do business with you later.  If you “lose ’em right” there will be quite a few of those, probably more than you’re doing business with at any particular time.  It also speaks to group morale and how we as managers keep our team focused.

Finally, a reminder to any of us who have ever taken a paycheck for managing:

Managing is getting paid for home runs that someone else hits.

A big determinant of our success as managers is our ability to keep those home-run hitters happy and productive.  We need to appreciate that the folks who are actually doing the grunt work are the ones who make the organization hum, not the folks in the big offices.  I’ve never seen an owner win a pennant without players and I never saw a CEO make a dime without people to support him in some way.

The Old Perfessor’s lessons aren’t so old, are they?

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Don Larsen And You

Way back on this date in 1956 the Yankees were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

The "everlasting image" of Yogi Berr...

The “everlasting image” of Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms upon the completion of the perfect game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yankees’ Don Larsen did something that had never been done before (or since). He pitched a perfect game in the World Series. For those of you who don’t follow baseball (we do have quite a few international readers here!), a perfect game is one in which 27 batters come to the plate and none of them reach first base. 3 outs per inning, 9 innings per game. No walks, no hits. Perfection. It’s an extremely rare feat under any circumstances – there have only been 23 perfect games in the 100+ year history of major league baseball.  To accomplish it under the pressure of the World Series is amazing.

I don’t know what was in his mind as he took the mound that day but I’m willing to bet his focus was on getting the next batter out, not on making sure none of the 27 would reach base.  Let me give you a similar thought.  There are two Swedish golf instructors who operate Vision54.   The thinking is that if we can birdie every hole during a round of golf we’d shoot 54.   That’s perfection of another sort and it sounds impossible.  Then again, as I pointed out to someone over the weekend, he’d made birdie on every hole on our course at one point or another, just not in the same round.  Like a baseball pitcher who’s retired every batter he’ll face that day at one point or another in his career, the task is to turn what you’ve done before into a consistent reality, one pitch or one swing at a time.

That’s the business point too.  We look at daunting tasks – double our sales, find 50 new customers in a few months – as impossible.  Yet we’ve increased our sales and we’ve found new customers.  We have the ability to do the remarkable because the remarkable is just stuff we can do done each and every time.  It’s less about ability than it is about execution (and maybe a little luck thrown in from time to time).

What do you think?  What impossible thing will you do today?

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Can Major League Tech Overcome Apathetic Fans?

I noticed something yesterday that got me thinking about the role tech plays in rejuvenating “old” products.  In this case, the product is baseball.  If you’re over the age of 50, baseball was probably the first sport you came to love and follow because when my peers and I were kids it truly was the American past-time.  College football and the NFL were a distant second; the NBA was barely surviving, and soccer was something they did in Europe.

The Harris Interactive folks have been running a poll for many years which tracks which sport fans label as “their favorite.”  As you can see in this document, baseball has been falling for most of the almost 30 years they’ve been measuring this.  In 1985, baseball was about even with pro football when fans answered the question “If you had to choose, which ONE of these sports would you say is your favorite?”  By 2011, those responding “pro football” were 2.5x greater than those responding “baseball.”   One might expect that baseball’s audience would be older – there’s plenty of research to support that – and this poll identified the 50-64 segment as the one with the most avidity for the game.

The modern MLB logo was first used in 1969.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s why, when I read this piece yesterday, I had a thought.  Another research company, Scarborough, found about the same percentage of “avid” baseball fans as did the Harris study.  However, it also found a lot of strength for the game among Gen Y fans.  Generation Y are the “echo boomers,” the children of boomers like me.  In fact:

54% of Gen Y MLB Fans more likely than all MLB Fans to have used a mobile device to read a newspaper in the past 30 days, 84% more likely to have listened to internet radio in the past 30 days and 22% more likely than all MLB Fans to typically watch reality TV. Gen Y MLB Fans are more than twice as likely as all MLB Fans to have visited Twitter in the past 30 days, 59% more likely to have read or contributed to a blog in the past 30 days and 68% more likely to have watched video clips online in the same time period. Gen Y MLB Fans are 131% more likely than all MLB Fans to have visited Hulu.com in the past 30 days and 65% more likely to have visited YouTube.com in the same time frame.

So this is my thought.  The game isn’t any faster nor has there been a breakthrough in game presentation that is stirring interest.  What is going on here in my mind has to do with the thing that MLB does better than any other sports league ( and I say that as someone who was once responsible for this at a major sports league):  digital media and technology.  Baseball’s tech arm, MLBAM, is widely recognized as the leader over the last decade.  Their commitment to make their games available on all devices was revolutionary at the time and their “At Bat” product is terrific.  I think this is what’s driving the reemergence of the sport among younger people.  It’s accessible, it’s presented in a manner they understand, and it’s everywhere they are.

Could it be that new technology is making our oldest professional sport new again?  What do you think?  How can it do the same for other “old” businesses?

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There’s Neither An “F” Nor “U” in Baseball

The Major League Baseball logo.

Image via Wikipedia

One thing caught my eye last week and you might have missed it since there was so much else going on.  The Yankees and Orioles played a baseball game last Tuesday.  That’s not really news.  However, they started play at 11:08pm ET after a four-hour rain delay, and the game did not end until 2:15am. Yep, you read that right.  Guess the kids were late to school after the game?

Apparently, the Commissioner’s Office called the Yankees and told them to get the game played.  The Yankees, in an effort to make sure the folks who had tickets to the game (it was played so no rain-checks, right?) announced that ticket-holders to the game would be given some form of a free ticket offer to “any Yankees game – next season”.  Having worked in a sports league, I know that the postponement and rescheduling of games is a nightmare, especially given travel, labor rules, and fan reaction.  But since it rained throughout the game, maybe the risk of injury should have prevailed in their thinking?  And not just to the players. Continue reading


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