The Allure of Doomsaying

I just finished this Grantland piece by Bryan Curtis on the imminent demise of baseball. If you’re a fan at all — or a fan of any long-standing pastime — you’ve probably read or heard complaints like this:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

The kicker is that this quote is from 1868, eight years before the founding of the National League. It turns out that there’s a long thread of end-times commentary stretching back to the beginning of the Major Leagues, and Curtis unspools it carefully and well.

These persistent predictions hint at one of the reasons that doomsayers will never want for work: all human institutions, no matter how long-lived, will wax and wane. Predicting an institution’s demise, as Curtis describes it:

…allows us to imagine we’re present at a turning point in history. We’re the lucky coroners who get to toe-tag the game of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Kurt Bevacqua.

“We are not at a historic moment,” Thorn said. “The popularity of anything will be cyclical. There will be ups and downs. If you want to measure a current moment against a peak, you will perceive a decline. J.P. Morgan was asked, ‘What will the stock market do this year?’ His answer was: ‘Fluctuate.’”

One driver that Curtis doesn’t mention is the control that failure gives us. There’s a certain temperament — and I plead guilty — that is very comfortable with the dodge Richard Feynman mocks here:

All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t,’–which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

Making a positive forecast about, in this case, baseball, would put us in the uncomfortable position of predicting success for something we can’t control. It is hard to create and achieve success in this world and nothing lasts forever. The sure bet is on the “can’t” in Henry Ford’s “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

As everyone say, please read the whole thing.

Manny Ramirez, Theo Epstein, and Leadership Do’s/Don’ts

Two posts on terminating top performers at HarvardBusiness.org (here and here) had my ears perked when I heard Theo Epstein, General Manager of the Boston Red Sox discuss the events in and around the Manny Ramirez trade.  Manny was, and still can be on occasion, one of the greatest right-handed bats in baseball history.  He does, however, have a unique attitude and deportment that is simply known as “Manny being Manny”.

I wondered how Theo would discuss what was, in essence, the termination of his top performer.  There is a lot to admire about his management style.  He’s not even 35, yet Theo is one of the more self-possessed, articulate, mature, and successful sport executives around.   Let me pass along a few “Theo’s do’s and don’ts” that I derived from the interview:

  • Don’t bad mouth past contributions — This makes one look bitter and foolish.  For goodness sakes, Manny averaged nearly 40 HR/110 RBI in a Red Sox uniform.
  • Do answer specific objections/questions with facts — That said, don’t let objections lie.  However, answer the objections with facts.  When Theo was asked about the secondary effects of losing Manny on David Ortiz, Theo could easily demonstrate that Ortiz’s production was unaffected by Manny’s previous absences.
  • Don’t, in the words of Theo, “parade around and tell people what’s going on behind the scenes, just to make ourselves look good“.  Too many sports leaders get caught up in trying to ensure everyone — fans, the media, and especially the players — knows that “they’re the boss”.  Continue reading
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