As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Tony Adams watched 8,274 pitches thrown to Astros hitters during 58 home games from the 2017 season. He logged his results on signstealingscandal.com. Adams broke down every pitch to Astros hitters, noted if he discerned a bang, and included a direct link to each pitch.
I have experienced some amazing baseball games in my life. I’ve seen heroic hits (Werth’s 13 pitch at-bat and subsequent Walk off HR in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS) and historic meltdowns (Drew Storen and the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS). I’ve seen World Series Wins (Red Sox at Fenway in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series) and even a Perfect Game (Matt Cain in 2012).
I’ve seen hundreds of hit-less innings and innings filled with nothing but hits. I’ve seen baseball games end in ties. I’ve attended exhibition games and old timers’ games. I’ve seen games at every level of play – attending games at the start of Spring and deep into the Fall. I’ve waited out rain outs and wished at times for nothing but rain. I’ve attended countless games as a son and even more as a father.
I’ve eaten more hot dogs than I dare try to count.
But these are not the things that make baseball what it is. What truly sets baseball apart – what makes baseball America’s Pastime – is not what takes place on the field, in all of the innumerable games that happen over the course of a season, but rather what happens in the stands. It is the stories that are exchanged between a boy and his father. It is the peanuts that are passed between a father and his daughter. It is the beer and soda spilled when jumping for that foul ball that never quite reaches you. It is the smell of new leather from the fresh mitt on the hand of a boy at his very first game and the smell of old leather from the mitt resting on his father’s lap. It is the hot dogs passed down the aisle and the cash passed backed up. It is the smell of cotton candy. It is the bags of Cracker Jack pitched several aisles over by vendors as they work their way up the stands. It is the yell of “Cold Beer” and “Last Call.” It is standing for the National Anthem and applauding soldiers who have recently returned home. It is the cheering of Sausages in Milwaukee or presidents in Washington DC.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, boys never grow up and baseball reminds us of this. As fans settle into their seats and the players take the field, that boy in every man is reawakened. Baseball is America’s Pastime because it allows us to dream and there is nothing quite so American as dreaming big dreams. Baseball is America’s Pastime because of what happens between the innings – not during them.
Last night I went to the Washington National’s game against the Angels. I had four tickets in my regular seats and decided to make a guys’ night out of it. The weather was perfect and as we settled into our seats and the players took the field we made that all too familiar transformation. We talked about “grown-up things” but dreamed big dreams and crafted bucket lists. We talked of mountains climbed and ones that remained yet unclimbed – both the physical and spiritual varieties.
We nodded and laughed and listened.
The game ended and we each went our separate ways. Back to adulthood. More willing perhaps than when we arrived because we each quietly knew that we only needed to return to a diamond somewhere – anywhere – to once again find that boy in each of us.
A few weeks ago, I wrote my first lessons from little league post on motivation and then my second post on building a team.
As I previously mentioned, my life seems to be increasingly immersed in baseball. While the daily exercises of work and life never slow down, as spring rolls around I somehow figure out how to sleep less so I can squeeze yet another job into the mix. This spring I coached 4 teams and helped with a 5th. We have all 3 boys on individual little league teams. And as if this were not enough, in the summer of 2011 I started a travel/select baseball program for which the older two boys play on the 8U and 9U teams respectively. When it comes to baseball, we are all in.
Each of my boys have baseball nicknames which have long since replaced their “real” names in our house. My wife tallied 55 little league games she would attend for the three boys across just 10 or so weeks. This doesn’t include the 4-6 games each of the two older boys will play over Memorial Day Weekend or the 10-12 travel games I scheduled in March prior to little league really getting underway. Rescheduled games because of rain a few weeks ago and the tournament over Memorial Day Weekend have us playing 22 games over 14 days. Needless to say, washing baseball uniforms is a near daily routine at our house. To add just an ounce more baseball to our lives, this year we have a professional baseball playing living with us – giving us yet one more “son’s” baseball games to keep track of – even if he can tie his own cleats. We are all-in.
But with all of this, I know this time is fleeting. In not many years, the boys will move on from dreaming of the Majors. Their mitts will land on a shelf, their bats will grow dusty. Days grow to months and then onto years. But as I mentioned in my previous post – there are life lessons and business lessons on a baseball field so I try to point these out when I can. I don’t know that they internalize them much now, but my hope is that these lessons will stick with them. As I come across these lessons, I’ll take occasion to write and reflect upon them briefly. This week I want to make a few points on learning from mistakes. Obviously, in business or baseball – we need to learn from our mistakes. A few key take-aways:
- Minimize Errors. Know that you are going to make a dozen errors today. Figure out how to minimize them quickly when they occur. Ball gets away from us all – move to minimize errors quickly.
- Don’t Let Errors Compound. Too often in little league – or in business – we allow errors to compound. In a game I coached recently we had runners on 1st and 2nd when the player at the plate ripped a shot to the outfield. The player on 2nd scored easily, but the defensive team relayed the ball in quickly and so the runner from 1st held at 3rd base. The ball was slightly over thrown as it came in and the runner who had scored was yelling, “go – keep running.” Consequently we ended up with both runners on 3rd base and the lead runner began running home despite the fact that the catcher now had the ball and had good position blocking the base path home. The lead runner was tagged out by a mile for the third out of the inning and both players came in frustrated and upset. In this play we had a series of running errors and we never gave ourselves a chance to recover. The runner who scored shouldn’t have provided bad intelligence, the runner at 2nd should have looked for the third base coach before coming to third, and once he realized what he had done he should have swallowed his pride and run back to 2nd. It took 3+ running errors to give-away the 3rd out of the inning. In this instance, the out was a culmination of several errors and not just a single mistake. I see this behavior in business all of the time. Companies tighten-up and retrench within a previously committed to strategy – even when the outs are evident ahead.
- Don’t Let Errors Take You Out of the Game. As I mentioned above, after this play produced the third out, both players were frustrated. Tears were shed. They had to immediately take the field and I subsequently had to sit one of the boys – one of our better defensive players – for the half innings so he could regain his composure. He had let the prior inning’s error fester. He couldn’t move on. In little league baseball there are dozens of errors in any given game. There are managerial errors, there are umpire errors, and there are of course player errors. In business you have to figure out how to move on.
- Make Adjustments. The key to learning from our mistakes on and off the field is to make adjustments. In little league it isn’t uncommon to see a given boy make the same mistake repeatedly. Each boy often has a unique set of fielding or hitting flaws. They might back-up on a hard hit grounder or not take the one additional step they need to make a play. It isn’t uncommon to see them make the same mistake over and over – each time failing to make the small adjustment needed. I see this same behavior in business. Small, repeated errors because small adjustments are never made.
After my writing my last post on Lessons from Little League, I happen to catch a similar post on Roger Ehrenberg’s blog. Clearly he and I are both so immersed in baseball during the season that we tend to relate everything to baseball and baseball to everything around us. Like Roger, I’ve gained a tremendous number of insights about strategy, human psychology, and life through coaching youth baseball. All the lessons learned on the field – as a coach or as a player – relate to much bigger principles of success. I plan to make Lessons from Little League a regular feature of my writings where I’ll relate what I’m seeing between the baselines to broader issues of leadership, management, and success.
Roger hits on some great points about building a team in his post. I especially agree with the following and have seen it countless times:
Year after year, in my experience newer managers tend to underperform more experienced managers. Why is this? My hypothesis is that the newer managers tend to draft based on the theory of “best athlete available that meets my position requirements,” while the old timers tend to draft with a particular team construction in mind. This means taking into account factors such as “Is the kid a team player? Does the player show up for practice on time? Are they humble and do they work hard? Are their parents over-involved and stressing out the kid (and the coaches and other team members in the process)? Is the player a potential leader? Has the player previously been on teams with other kids where they’ve been successful?” In short, the objective function is building the best team, not assembling the most talented group of individual players. And in Little League, as in life, teams win when they function as a single unit and not as an amalgam of autonomous parts. So I have consistently passed up more skilled players in order to draft players who are good, but even more importantly, are good kids and fit within the team concept.
I’ve even joked that I don’t need to see the kids play at all before a draft, I just need the parents to answer a simple survey that might look something like this:
- Does your family intend to take vacations in March, April, May, or June?
- Do you allow your child to play other sports, take musical lessons or enroll in cub scouts in the Spring?
- Do you think homework is something your child must do or simply something nice for him to do if he can fit it in?
- Are you ok having your child practice 5 days a week until 10 minutes after dark?
- Do you consider all of your children as equal or do you give your baseball playing children extra support during the season with rides, etc?
- From a scale of 1-10, how well do you like to rake and drag fields and prepare them for games?
- Do you think parents should coach from the bleachers?
- Do you think parents should email their coaches asking the coaches to play their children in certain positions even though you and the coaches both know your kid doesn’t play that position well?
- Do you ever use “no baseball” as a punishment for your child?
- Do you have a batting facility in your house?
Of course these are exaggerated in jest but in my experience what hinders the growth of a team the most is the dedication and commitment of the players and parents. An 11-man roster is only successful if 11 players and 22 parents are moving in the same direction. Winning masks friction within a team, but as soon as things start to turn against the team – and in little league or business things always do turn against the team at least once in weird and unexpected ways – friction will finds its way to the surface.
New little league coaches often overlook parents as team members when they draft players, but experienced coaches recognize parents can be the x-factor that brings a team together. When I taught in the MBA programs at GWU and GMU I saw a similar sentiment often from my grad students. Many wanted to start companies and gain venture financing. They looked at venture financing as a bank – not as a partner – so I would often bring VCs into my class each semester to teach what came along with the check was often more valuable than the check itself. VCs see themselves rightly as part of the team.
I’ve coached at least two teams with more underlying potential than was ever realized on the field. In both cases the team never jelled. Conversely, I’ve taken teams much further than I thought their underlying skill warranted – but the collective team aspect of the team made-up the delta. Teams need to be collectively coachable and as soon as they lose that collectiveness it will be difficult to reach their full potential.
With three boys playing baseball, I spend every evening on the baseball diamond and the hours after I get home are often filled with more batting practice in the basement. I’ve learned a lot about baseball, boys, and myself through coaching over the last 5 years. I thought I’d share a few of these life lessons as they occur.
After (another) tough loss on Saturday – I was feeling pretty discouraged. The truth is I feel frustrated and discouraged because we’ve got 12 great players and they each have a ton of potential. I feel I’ve failed them.
I feel the boys are lacking motivation and over the last few days I’ve been thinking about motivation. Motivation has to come from within and I’m not sure how to instill that in 9 and 10 year-old boys. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on motivation over the last few days.
Lesson 1: Accepting that You Might Not Get 100% Effort
I struggle with this one. We see their potential. We know what they are capable of. We know how good they can play. But in the end, you have to accept that you might not get 100% effort from each boy 100% of the time.
Lesson 2: Understand What You Can Control
You have to understand what you can control and what you can’t control. You have to set expectations around what you can control.
- need to realize they can’t control getting it a hit. But they can control a batting philosophy. Our batting philosophy is simple: take an aggressive approach to hitting. Step in the box looking to hit. Drive off your feet and hit the ball hard somewhere. Adjust with two strikes to a two-strike approach – choke-up and protect while trying to put the ball in play.
- Can’t control getting a batter out, but can control taking time, making good throws
- covering the plate on passed balls and wild pitches
- Catchers – can control making good throws back to pitcher, can control not throwing to 2B when there is a runner on 3RD
- 2B – can control backing up throw backs to pitcher
- Players can control running into the dugout at the end of each inning
- Players can control running after a ball
Lesson 3: As Players Mature, Place More Responsibility on Them
As the players have gotten older, I’m now requiring them to call me directly if they are going to miss a practice or game and tell me personally. If a player has to leave early then he needs to call me and tell me.
Lesson 4: Motivation Has to Come From Within the Team
We need to develop leaders and motivators on the team. Players need to not get on each other. Blame each other. A bad throw is a bad throw. Players still need to try to catch it – as opposed to simply blame the player who threw the ball.
Lesson 5: Motivating the Team Requires Motivating Each Player Differenly
Every player is unique. Each player has their own motivations. Coaches and other players need to know the personalities of their individuals players and teammates and motivate accordingly. Boys all develop differently and at different times.
Lesson 6: There Need to Be Clearly Defined Rules for the Team
Lesson 7: Default Back to Fun
Boys play the game because it is fun. When all else seems to be failing default back to fun. While we want the boys to taste the fun that comes from really committing and playing full out. It’s more fun when you are good. More fun when you relax and play freely. But we might not always get that. We need to keep up the fun. Boys will eventually be motivated by failure, but I don’t think that sets in until 13 or 14 for most boys. Default back to fun.
I was in San Francisco this week speaking at and attending the TV of Tomorrow Show. As I typically do, I was scheduled to take the red eye home on Wednesday night. I had a few hours between the end of the conference and my flight so after grabbing dinner at Anchor and Hope, I walked to AT&T Park to watch a few innings of the Astros @ Giants game before heading to SFO for a 10:43PM flight. I had caught the last few innings on the previous night and thought I’d catch a few more before leaving for DC. My tweet at the time sums it well:
One of the books I’m currently reading is Jason Turbow and Michael Duca’s The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime. It’s a great read that goes through the myriad of unwritten rules in baseball – from running up the score, when stealing should be done, retaliation and general baseball etiquette.