Baseball, Billy Budd, and Business

Dog bites man? All the time, no news.   Man bites dog? That’s news.

Art imitates life? All the time, no news. Life imitates art? That’s news.

It was big news indeed last week in the archetypal, but lately not-so-king-of-sports American world of baseball. Here are the bare facts

Armando Galarraga nearly pitched a perfect game for the Detroit Tigers. With two out in the 9th, umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly called a runner safe at first on a ground ball. 

For our many friends in the rest of the world, to whom baseball is a distant competitor to futbol, here is some context.

A ‘perfect game’ is about the rarest statistic in baseball. By contrast, no-hitters and shut-outs are positively commonplace. In roughly a century of statistics–I’m guessing about a quarter of a million official games—this event has happened only 18 times since 1900. That’s less than once every 5 years on average.

Help me out, All Blacks fans, what’s the equivalent? Those of you who follow Man-U and Juventus, what’s comparable? And hey cricket fans, am I right this is more rare than scoring 100 runs and taking 5 wickets in an innings?

Anyway, that’s what was at stake. And everyone admitted the umpire blew the call. Including the umpire. Which takes us to Stage 2.

Lessons in Taking Responsibility, Lessons in Acceptance

Within an instant, the fans, the announcers, the commentators, the media, were all over umpire Joyce in the massive condemnation of his blown call, and in enraged sympathy for Galarraga’s near-miss of sports immortality for a mistake patently not his own.

And then, it all went to a new level. Within minutes, Joyce—widely acknowledged as one of the best umpires in the game–knew what he’d done, and acknowledged his mistake. In fact, he went beyond acknowledgement. 

“I did not get the call correct. I kicked the s**t out of that call. I just missed the damn call. I missed it from here to the wall. At the time, I really thought I had got the call right. Now that I’m standing here and I’ve seen it on the replay…I missed it. This isn’t “a” call. This is a history call. I kicked the s**t out of it. And there’s nobody that feels worse than I do. I take pride in this job, and I kicked the s**t out of it, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there that worked his ass off all night. It’s probably the most important call of my career, and I missed it.”

And what did Galarraga have to say about this assault on his lifetime record?

 “Nobody’s perfect…I’m sure that guy felt worse than me, twenty times. He’s a professional, I’m a professional…I feel sad…but it’s part of the game, nobody’s perfect.”

The next day, the Tigers made another great gesture by sending Galarraga up to home plate to deliver the day’s line-up to the umpire—Mr. Joyce. Joyce teared up; no words were exchanged, a knowing pat on the back conveying all that needed to be said. Then on with the game.

A total, Complete Class Act. By both parties. A diamond moment in a rough world.

But wait, there’s more.

Lessons from Herman Melville for Business

One of the ways in which baseball is an anachronism is its continued refusal to adopt the instant replay, a feature already completely accepted in (American) football and tennis. At moments like this, the hue and cry to change the rule was deafening. Yet Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig refused to change the call. 

Because to overrule that call, blatant though it was, would be to instantly change the nature of the commissioner’s job by making him the head umpire, the court of last resort on close calls.

It’s easy to critique Selig. It’s harder to see why he’s upholding something very valuable here. To get a better perspective on it, we have to go to literature.

Billy Budd was the book, Herman Melville’s posthumously published novella. I remember it as impossibly abstract—a morality tale with only the thinnest connection to reality. Until last week, when Galarraga and Selig made it real for me.

Galarraga is, of course, Billy Budd—the complete innocent, a person of grace, born illegitimate child and later orphaned—yet whom everyone loves. In a heated moment, Budd makes a mistake—a mistake no one blames him for. But the mistake calls, by law, for the death sentence.

The roles of Joyce and Selig are combined in the book in Captain Vere, the man who must decide against the morally innocent but technically guilty Budd. And he does his job well. Billy Budd’s last words before being hanged are, “God bless Captain Vere,” thus indicating his acceptance of the code over even his own life.

[Sidebar: I find the summaries in the Wikipedia entry for Billy Budd to be insipid and trivial. Literature has suffered over these last few decades from the attack on criticism by the likes of Jacques Derrida. The result is trivial speculation on metaphors for historical events and scenarios of subconscious homo-eroticism. Deconstructionists wouldn’t recognize a moral fable if Aesop hit them in the face with a 2×4].

Lessons from Baseball for Business

Baseball used to be the sports metaphor for business, and business delighted in metaphor. Interestingly, baseball was always the more individual of the sports—football being an extreme team sports, and basketball somewhere in the middle; this fit well with the focus on the heroic individual in business.

Baseball in the US is still big business. But in general, the “hot” sports and sports stars tend more recently to be from basketball or football. We haven’t seen a huge baseball movie since Field of Dreams—two decades ago.

Within baseball, the Detroit Tigers (my boyhood favorite team—shout-out to Al Kaline) haven’t been leaders for some time. Detroit itself is a city fallen on hard, hard times. 

So it’s all the more striking that this shot to the gut decent example comes from a Detroit Tigers pitcher, a workingman umpire–and a regulator.

Think of what lessons business could and should be drawing—if they were still following baseball for lessons like this.

Let’s just be clear what the lessons are here.

Lesson 1. From umpire Joyce: face facts. Deal with reality. And the minute you see the facts are against you, call it. Call it on yourself. Take full responsibility. 

(Suggested readers: William Weldon, CEO of Johnson & Johnson; Tony Hayward, CEO of BP).

Lesson 2. From pitcher Galarraga: accept life gracefully. Do all that you can; when you win, be gracious; and when you lose, that’s when you really demonstrate class.

(Suggested reader: Jeffrey Skilling).

Lesson 3: From Commissioner Selig. Celebrate the humanity of sports, business, life. The humanity of the sport really does transcend winning and losing. 

It’s not about win-lose. Life itself is not fair, as every parent momentarily recalls in that moment when they preach to their kids. What really does count is how you play the game. He who wins is the one who does the best job of accumulating points sufficient to cover the odds of random crap, i.e. life, showing up as coincidence.

(Suggested readers: Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein; and, to be fair, all the rest of us too).