Category Archives: Books

The Truth About Manny (If Only It Were That Simple…)

Is the following quotation from a book review that will eventually be written about the events that finally led to Manny Ramirez’s brilliant Red Sox career ending in a ball of flames?

“The story examines the variations a mistruth can go through when filtered through person after person and illustrates how different people can have multiple perceptions and interpretations of the same event. The various points of view the reader sees provide insight into the story that none of the individual characters possesses.”

No, this is an excerpt from a review of the book, Nothing But The Truth, by Avi, which is one of the books I read with my class when I was a 9th grade English teacher. But the lessons of this profound book apply directly to this whole Manny Ramirez situation. All of you who have read this book understand that there is NOT “one truth” in the drama that has played out over the last week — and over the last eight years. There’s Manny’s truth. There’s Manny’s wife’s truth. There’s John Henry’s truth. There’s Theo’s truth. There’s Francona’s truth. There’s each teammate’s truth. There’s Dan Shaughnessy’s truth. There’s Jerry Remy’s truth. There’s the stat-man’s truth. And there’s YOUR truth, based on everything you have read, heard, and seen — and the mindset you bring to this situation.

The book reminds us that everything you hear from a second-hand source has been distorted in some way, often a small way and and often unintentionally. It reminds us that two people can witness the same scene and describe it totally differently — and both descriptions can be accurate. It reminds us that all reporters, players, and fans perceive the things Manny does and says — and the things that are said about him — through the lenses of their own prejudgments and cultural values, so all reporters, fans, and players see and hear different things. It reminds us that we almost NEVER know the true context of the quotations we read and the actions we witness, and that reporters can tell you the complete truth — and mangle it at the same time. It reminds us that a small misunderstanding can snowball into an out-of-control mess when one warped interpretation leads to multiple responses that are even more off-base, and the original players in the drama react to these responses in ways that make the situation even worse, and on and on it goes, the downward spiral of miscommunication and misinterpretations compounding in a horrific way.

Ultimately, it’s futile for reporters (and fans) to state unequivocally what’s going on in this Manny Ramirez situation — BUT because it’s their job (and because they’re programmed to think their version of the truth is “the right” one), that’s what they do. And this often takes us even further from “the real truth.”

We should be careful about judging people based on shreds of information (from second-hand sources in the media) that barely scratch the surface of a complex scenario. (For example, Manny Ramirez and Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick have worked together for eight years — there’s a history there that we know nothing about.) The press is paid to tell us what happened — but only the BEST reporters dig below the surface to find the REAL STORY. There are conversations that have taken place that we don’t know about (Scott Boras?) and factors at play that we can’t comprehend (culture differences?) that, if we were aware of them, would shift whatever opinion we currently have about Manny Ramirez and others who have played a role in this saga.

Tom Caron stated the truth he perceives on last night’s post-game show: “”Manny has acted and spoken his way right out of this clubhouse.”

Or, maybe WE’VE acted and spoken Manny right out of this clubhouse by our tainted and sensationalized reporting of “the truth” and our lack of understanding about a unique personality who, through it all, drives in runs with a smile on his face. That’s certainly Manny’s truth. He said last night, “Mental peace has no price and I don’t have peace here.” When I put myself in his shoes, that’s a truth that’s easy to see.

Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and the Red Sox

jackie-robinson.jpgOn Friday night, February 1, the day after Jackie Robinson‘s would-be 89th birthday, I attended the Red Sox’s celebration of his life in the EMC Club at Fenway Park. The event featured a panel of speakers, the star of which was the legendary basketball hall of famer, Bill Russell (who, on February 12, celebrated his 74th birthday). Russell, one of the greatest Celtics of all time, shared some memorable stories and insights (transcribed below), but first, panelist and author Steve Jacobson reminded us about Jackie Robinson’s own connection to Boston – one that is painful for members of Red Sox Nation to hear.

pumpsie-green-1960-baseball-card.jpgIt is fitting and ironic that the Red Sox are the only team that formally celebrates Robinson’s birthday, for while the Red Sox were the last team to field a black player (Pumpsie Green in 1959, three years after Robinson’s baseball career ended), the Sox were the first team to give Jackie Robinson a major league “tryout” – in April 1945, two years before he was named Rookie of the Year as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Of course, the tryout was a sham, and it only happened because of public pressure that was thrust on the Red Sox by Boston city councilman, Isadore Muchnik, who threatened to revoke the Red Sox’s permit to play Sunday games at Fenway Park unless the Red Sox offered a tryout to three black players. Those players were Marvin Williams, Sam Jethroe, and Jackie Robinson.

tom-yawkey.jpg“The workout was supposed to be supervised by four Red Sox hall of famers,” writes Jacobson in his new book, Carrying Jackie’s Torch. “Joe Cronin, the manager; 78 year-old Hugh Duffy, a coach; owner Tom Yawkey, a South Carolina lumberman; and Eddie Collins, the general manager. Cronin refused to give an evaluation of the players he’d seen. Duffy said one workout wasn’t enough. Yawkey said any judgment had to come from his baseball people. And Collins said he couldn’t be there because of a previous engagement. Don’t call us, we’ll call you — and the Red Sox never did call.”

It’s mind boggling that the Red Sox had “first dibs” on Jackie Robinson. Can you imagine how different Red Sox history would be — indeed, Boston history — if Jackie Robinson had played second base at Fenway from 1945 to 1956? Writes Jacobson: “The Red Sox, who won the American League pennant in 1946, the last year of the all-white major leagues, did not win another pennant until 1967. The effect was clear.”

I didn’t know the whole story of Robinson’s bogus tryout with the Red Sox until Jacobson retold the tale. And when he was finished speaking, it was Bill Russell’s turn. I took notes of everything Russell said, and I’ve done my best to represent his words below.

bill-russell-2-2-1-08.jpg“I’m proud to be here tonight, and I’m so glad the Red Sox are honoring Jackie Robinson on his 79th birthday, and anytime the Red Sox want me to be part of something honoring him, I’d be glad to do so, even though I live in Seattle and you can’t get here from there.”

“I remember Jackie liked to bunt the ball down the first base line – that meant the pitcher would have to run over and field the ball as Jackie ran past, and Jackie was a football player….” Bill Russell smiled. “Slight collision!”

“The day after Jackie died, I got a call from Rachel Robinson, and she asked me to be one of the pallbearers in Jackie’s funeral. And I asked her, ‘Rachel, why would you ask me?’ And she said, “Bill, you were Jackie’s favorite athlete.” And when I hung up the phone, I remember thinking, “How does a man get to be a hero to Jackie Robinson?

“There were people along the way who tried to discourage me. But I lived a charmed life, because there were many people – black, white, Jewish, Christian – who pushed me forward, too. My high school basketball coach was one of those people. [Russell mentioned that Frank Robinson and Curt Flood attended his high school in Oakland at the same Russell was there.] He just looked at kids and saw baseball players or basketball players. And that’s what I encountered in Boston with Walter Brown and my coach – and my friend – Red Auerbach.”

bill-russell-and-red-auerbach.jpg“Now I came to Boston believing I was the best player in the land. But I didn’t get along with my college coach [at University of San Francisco] for one single day – yet we managed to win 55 straight games and two straight NCAA championships. And my Olympic coach was from Tulsa, and we didn’t get along at all, either – but we won the gold medal. So when I came to Boston, I expected not to get along with the coach. But the first time I met Red, he said, ‘You’re among friends.’

“I was with a friend of mine in an airport and a stranger came up to me and said, ‘You’re tall. Are you a basketball player?’ and I replied, ‘No.’ Then another person came up to me and asked, Are you a basketball player?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’ So my friend asked me, ‘Bill, why do you keep telling them no?’ And I told him, ‘Because basketball is what I do, but it’s not who I am.’

At one point, a woman stood and asked a question about what Bill Russell thought about urban kids all wanting to become athletes or entertainers, like the heroes they most admire. Bill’s response:

“I think it’s a myth that black kids today all just want to be athletes or entertainers. And my view is, we shouldn’t discourage kids from wanting to be special. I teach that we have to make changes inside-out rather than outside-in. I tell kids if you do work hard and use your intelligence, there are people who will give you a helping hand. But just giving help all the time [outside-in] can become a negative.”

“I don’t see any problem with a kid wanting to be an athlete or an entertainer, and I reject that the only thing all these athletes are teaching kids is to be athletes and entertainers. That’s just not true. You know, almost all of the best players in the NBA have foundations and are doing a lot of work with kids in the community – almost all of the best players – and we rarely hear about that, but it’s true. And these players are teaching kids a lot more than how to be a professional athlete or entertainer.”

russell-ali-brown-jabbar.jpg“In schools across the country, physical education programs are being cut as budgets are slashed. And this is a big problem. P.E. programs aren’t about creating pro athletes, they’re about creating healthy people. In my case, I have a mild case of diabetes, and my doctor tells me that the only reason it’s not severe is because of the active life I led in my youth and young adulthood. Mind and body are both important in a child’s education.”

“I remember the first time my mother said we could play in our front yard. Until that time, we had only been allowed to play in our back yard, but then one day my mother said we could play in the front. But she said to us, ‘Now people may walk by on the sidewalk, and some of them may say things to you. Some of the things they say may be good things, some of them may be bad. But whatever they say, don’t pay any attention to it. Remember, they don’t know you. And when they say bad things, that’s their problem, and they’re wrestling with their own demons.’ So, growing up, I was determined that no one would stop me. Particularly no one I didn’t know.”

“My daughter was one of Professor Ogletree’s students [at Harvard Law School – Ogletree moderated the evening], and her mom and I went our separate ways when she was 12 years old. So there I was, a single parent with a 12 year-old girl, and to this day, it’s been the single greatest adventure of my life. And back when she was 12, I made two promises to my daughter: 1. I will love you ’til I die. 2. When you leave this house, you’ll be able to take care of yourself better than any many you’ll ever meet. And I told her that because I wanted her to feel the same way my parents made me feel. And that’s what I’m trying to do today with kids – to teach them to have confidence in themselves and not to be afraid. Jackie Robinson was never motivated by fear. He didn’t see obstacles, he only saw opportunities, and he saw every challenge as a chance to show what he could do.”

“I’m looking forward to the next great baseball player, but I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t care what color he is.”

red-sox-retired-numbers.jpgThe Red Sox will never shed the facts of the team’s racist history; but the birthday party at Fenway for Jackie Robinson, featuring Bill Russell — not to mention our two World Championship teams featuring players from a variety cultural backgrounds – shows that those facts truly are history. History to be remembered, but never to be repeated.

My “Sports Books Hall of Fame”

There are hundreds of sports books in my library. Most were gifts from friends and family, and over the years I’ve probably read less than half of them (lots of good reading to look forward to). Here, I’ll share with you the seven that truly stand out. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them, and I’m restricting myself to three sentences per title:

mental-game-of-baseball.jpgThe Mental Game of Baseball, by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl
This book was loaned to me by then-9th grader (and later, NHL defenseman) Deron Quint in about 1991 (at age 23) when I was a teacher at the boarding school he attended. I had always believed there was an important psychological side to pitching, hitting, and fielding success, yet this book was the first to verify that and to offer many useful techniques. I know that this book gave me an edge in my Yawkey Amateur League of Boston pitching career, from 1991-1999, and I’ve integrated many of its basic teachings into my everyday life.

friday-night-lights.jpgFriday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger
It breaks your heart to read about these teenage athletes reaching the pinnacle of their lives in high school, then re-living their adolescent glory days the rest of their lives while pumping fuel at the gas station on the corner (similar to the movie, Hoop Dreams). And it’s stunning to see the religious fervor that’s generated by high school football in Texas. Superior writing makes this an unforgettable reading experience.

legend-of-bagger-vance.jpgThe Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Pressfield
Just a marvelous, metaphysical golf story, incredibly well written. When I finished it, I remember thinking, “That’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read – if not the greatest.” One of those books that casts a spell on you while you’re reading it, then leaves you enchanted at its conclusion.

golf-is-not-a-game-of-perfect.jpgGolf Is Not A Game Of Perfect, by Dr. Bob Rotella
I read this in 1998 and promptly went out and shot my best round of golf ever – BY FAR (best piece of advice: don’t add up your score – or even think about your score – until the end of your round). I won’t even tell you the score I achieved because you wouldn’t believe me, but I’ve also never come close to playing that well for 18 holes since then. After reading the book, I wrote its most important principles on a sheet of paper, and I review this sheet prior to every round I play (I keep the tattered old piece of paper in my golf bag).

for-love-of-the-game.jpgFor Love Of The Game, by Michael Shaara
I’m not sure when I read this, but I know I read it in one sitting (it’s a compact, 152-page paperback). An aging, former all-star pitcher, in the last year of his career, unexpectedly finds himself pitching the best game of his life, and each out brings him closer and closer to perfection. It’s the kind of novel I would write if I knew how to write a novel (and Shaara, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, knows how to write a novel).

moneyball.jpg Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
A non-sports fan would enjoy this book and call it “an excellent piece of non-fiction,” but to sports fans, it’s just about the best non-fiction book we’ve ever read. Michael Lewis is a masterful storyteller, and what a fascinating story this is about the “small market” Oakland A’s using insights into player statistics to compete against teams with payrolls five times as large. After reading this book, you’ll never look at baseball statistics the same way again.

sabr-record-book.jpgThe SABR Baseball List & Record Book: Baseball’s Most Fascinating Records and Unusual Statistics, by the Society for American Baseball Research
There are a lot of record books out there, but this one is definitely the most entertaining. The title of this book describes its contents perfectly: it’s filled with “fascinating records and unusual statistics” that keep you smiling, page after page. Here are two examples:

i) “Most at-bats in a season without a hit by a non-pitcher”

(answer: 35, by Hal Finney, Pittsburgh, 1936);

ii) “Batting Champion by Widest Margin”

(answer: .086, by Nap Lajoie, Philadelphia, who hit .426 in 1901 – the runner-up, Mike Donlin, Baltimore, hit .340).

What are your favorite sports books of all-time?

The Origins of Expertise

boy practicing tennisWe can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?

An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:

“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.

It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:

“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”

Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.

Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)

Rules vs. Results

We were all trained as children to “follow the rules.” But should our teachers have taught us how to decide when to break the rules? (Yes.)

Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal spent years studying managers and seeking out the habits and characteristics that separate “purposeful managers” (only 10% of all of them) from the frenzied, dTiger Woodsetached, and procrastinators. Their findings are collected in A Bias For Action (2004).

One of their most interesting insights is that successful managers know when to “break the rules” to reach critical organizational goals.

They write:
“Purposeful managers take an active stance when it comes to formal regulations and informal rules developed through cultural norms, habits, and shared expectations. Not only do they question rules that they deem outdated or inappropriate, but they also break or circumvent the rules when it’s absolutely necessary for achieving their goals.”

Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I getting paid to do things the way my boss and her boss would like me to do them, or am I getting paid to give my boss and her boss the results they want to see?” Bruch and Ghoshal’s research reveals that the most successful 10% of managers prioritize results over following protocol.

What rule – either formal or informal – are you letting stand in the way of your optimum performance?

A Golfer In My Own Mind

Tom WatsonThe third round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am was on TV in the background today as I supervised and played with my 4 small children (yes, that’s Tom Watson at Pebble Beach, left), and it got me thinking…

I have probably played a total of 50 rounds of golf in my entire life (perhaps 2 per year since 7th grade). How, then, can I justify calling myself a golfer?

Perhaps it’s because I imagine playing golf all the time; I read books about golf (The Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Pressfield, is one of my all-time favorite novels); my son and I compete in Yahoo’s online golf league together; in the summer, I’m constantly trying to find a way to squeeze in nine holes; when I do find time to get out on the golf course, I feel a level of peace, freedom, and competitive focus attainable in no other way.

Why does this game have such a hold over me, and over so many others? What is it about this sport that makes it so addictive, so engaging, so exhilarating — even for hacking amateurs like me?

Most importantly, how can you and I quadruple our annual golfing time during the course of the rest of our lives?

“I asked Arnold Palmer if he’d ever come close to mastering the game of golf; he said he thought he had once, for nine holes.” — Fuzzy Zoeller, from Be The Ball: A Golf Instruction Book for the Mind

Are You Measuring The Right Things?

Wrigley’s fenceSeth Godin describes an example today on his blog that shows that “just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s important.” It reminded me of a great book about measurements – indeed, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

Have any of you read Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game? (Even if you couldn’t care less about sports, you’ll enjoy this book.) It’s a fascinating story that provides a perfect example of how “knowing what to measure” can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s results.

A few years ago, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, set out with some MIT stat geeks to figure out what player statistics correlate most closely to “scoring runs.” What they discovered enabled them to compete on a different level in the game of selecting players. While every other team pursued players with high “batting averages” and “home run totals,” the A’s had figured out that these stats weren’t actually the most important when seeking players who would help you WIN (which is, of course, the ultimate goal).

They learned that “high on-base percentage” and “high slugging percentage” were the statistical qualities that contributed most to winning games — and that many of the players with the best stats in these areas were either overlooked by other teams (who had their eye on the wrong measurements), or undervalued in terms of salary. So, on one of the smallest budgets in all of baseball, the A’s put together a team that competed for the World Championship several years in a row.

How’d they do it? They asked the right questions, did some analysis, and figured out the right things to measure to identify players who could help them achieve their ultimate goal of winning – then they adjusted their game plan accordingly.

What if you could engineer a surge in your results in your own field, similar to the A’s surge in victories, by starting to measure the right things?