Baseball may seem inscrutable to the uninitiated, but it’s like no other sport to us true believers. And, as I’ve told my little-leaguer son on many occasions, baseball can teach a whole raft of lessons (and vice versa). I guess nine innings gives everyone a chance to ponder life, so I decided to jot down my own list of nine business lessons I learned from baseball.
Adjust to the ground rules wherever you play
Newcomers to baseball are always shocked to learn that each ballpark has its own local rules, right down to the dimensions of the outfield. Once they become familiar with the game, they are similarly amazed to see how a few rule changes alters the style of play between the American and National Leagues. Life is like that, though. Each of my customers has different expectations, and what is fine for one might be off limits for another. It’s up to each of us to adjust to the local style and make the most of it.
Roll with the bad calls
As enforcement of sporting rules and regulations becomes increasingly high-tech, baseball stands with international football as stalwart believers in the on-the-field call. Sometimes you get away with mischief; sometimes the call goes against you. You can argue and holler, but that’s going to get you ejected in short order. The best strategy is to roll with the bad calls and move on with the game.
Everything can change in a moment
Which brings us to lesson number 2: The next play can change everything. Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on the first major league pitch he saw. The Red Sox got creamed by the arch-rival Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship and were three outs away from elimination when the winds shifted. Eight straight wins later they were holding the World Series trophy for the first time since 1918. It’s important to remain faithful to the cause and believe you can win. Resurrection is possible if you make the right plays. Just ask Steve Jobs and the rest at Apple!
Wait for your pitch
Patience at the plate is a singular virtue for baseball success. It’s tempting to swing at everything that comes your way, hoping to connect with something, but it’s wiser to check your swing. Hitting in baseball is a psychological exercise, with the pitcher (and catcher) trying to guess what the batter will swing on. There are plenty of similar situations in life; not all opportunities are equal. Give each a good look, back out when you need to, but be ready to swing when something comes right down the middle!
Follow through – there’s a penalty for a balk
Pitching a baseball is all about mechanics – controlling the body and completing the full pitching motion is critical. There’s even a penalty for a “balk”, or stopping part way through. Many have said that life is all about showing up, and business is like this too. Either step aside and regroup before you start or complete what you have committed to.
It’s a long season – give it time, trade up, then play what you have
Managers and coaches are like poker players, pondering what they have and considering their options. The regular major league baseball season includes 162 games and stretches across half the year, allowing plenty of time for players and teams to overcome a slump or injury. General managers have four months to tweak their lineup, trading and dealing to get a better team. But the coaching staff has to make the team work no matter what they have. I see the same dynamic playing out in business, with the board swapping executives in and out while the staff tries to get their work done. But there comes a time when the board must back off and let their team play.
Superstars are fun to watch, but it takes a team to win
It’s rare for a baseball player to appear in every game, and even superstar pitchers can only start once or twice a week. Baseball requires a reliable team on the field, in the dugout and bullpen, and in the back office. The greatest mistake a manager can make is spending too much on a just few great pitchers or sluggers and hoping their brilliant play can make up for everyone else. A wiser choice is to put together a whole staff of under-valued over-achievers who want to play and win.
You have to adjust your play as the game progresses
One of the biggest changes in the modern game of baseball is the increasing use of specialist relief pitchers. Managers like Tony La Russa staffed their bullpen with specialists for each situation and inning, noting that the requirements changed as the game progressed. There is some controversy about over-specialization, but adaptability to changing situations is certainly a formula for success. The game changes as time passes and the final inning nears, and a good manager will shift his team to maximize success.
Even the best strike out sometimes
This is the most important lesson of all. Even the best batters strike out half the time, and even the best teams in history lost a quarter or more of their games. Baseball will never see a no-loss season like the 2007 Patriots, and neither will life. We must work hard, play to win, and dust ourselves off and try again when we lose.