For Love of the Game
Back in 1999, Kevin Costner made a movie called “For Love of the Game,” a drama-romance about the heroic end of a career of an aging pitcher, Billy Chapel. Rotten Tomatoes places it in the middle of its scale, with a 46% rating. “Baseball wins, Romance loses.” While Costner’s movie was not an award winner, unlike his other two baseball-themed movies, the theme of doing something for “the love of the game” is a powerful and emotive strategy for running your career and your life.
Like many aspects of life (and indeed like most baseball games), the movie moves slowly. Each inning of Billy Chapel’s final, perfect game is presented separately, intertwined with flashback scenes that retell the history of Chapel’s relationship with girlfriend Jane Aubrey (played by Kelly Preston). The improbable perfect game — one in which the pitcher retires all 27 batters he faces without ceding a walk or hit — is something very few people ever achieve in their professional lives. The core themes of the movie, grappling with the meaning at the end of a career, the tension between professional and personal spheres of one’s life, and the importance of teamwork to personal accomplishment, are universal.
End on a High Note
Billy Chapel played his entire 19-year career (or 17 years in Michael Shaara’s source book) for the Detroit Tigers, a legendary but mediocre team that in reality won the World Series four times over its 100-year history: 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. Chapel’s Tigers are about to be sold to a new owner, and the final game of the season is against the champion New York Yankees, making this game unimportant. On a personal note, Chapel is wrestling with a decision to either retire or be traded to a new team — to either end his career in glory or go out with a whimper by limping along. But in order to be true to himself, he has to give his all; he is the epitome of an All-Star.
Many of us probably know people who have “Retired on Active Duty,” co-workers that go through the motions without actually delivering anything of value. School systems are filled with dead wood teachers who have achieved tenure and just go through the motions year after year. Unless they do something truly stupid, many organizations are filled with people that are competent but unimaginative, “B” or “C” players that show up physically but have checked out mentally.
The people that inspire, however, are people that find joy and passion with every day, people that bring energy to those around them. Joy is infectious. Think about the people that smile at the start of the day, that make a place thrilling to be a part, that encourage creativity and accomplishment. I had one mentor that stands out far above others, a Scot with the energy to attract and engage with dozens of people one-on-one every day. He knew what we were doing enough to ask pointed questions, showing that he cared about us as people and as members of the organization, not just about the deliverables themselves. As a consequence, he got results that few other leaders could achieve. Part therapist, part teacher, part dynamo, part hyper-connected maven, Iain found the right language and advice to keep hundreds of people moving forward and improving development, manufacturing, sales, and logistics efforts across almost every business he was associated with. We all can point to at least one person who made a Difference in our lives, a person who chose to spend some time listening and caring. In baseball, they might be called the team captain. In an organization, they occupy all levels, and a great general manager will find a way to put these leaders in roles where they can impact a broad cross-section of the whole organization. Be that person. Care.
Personal vs. Professional Success
Billy Chapel laments that the greatest day of his career wasn’t the pinnacle of happiness:
“I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there.”
It is hard to run a career successfully; few of us will stay with one employer for 19 years, a lifetime in most industries and an extremely rare accomplishment in the field of professional sports, with its ups and downs and emphasis on annual performance at any cost. It is just as hard and rare to see a long term personal relationship remain strong, especially among high-performance superstars. Chapel and Aubrey, like many couples, come from different places with different expectations. She has a child (which she does not divulge until later in their relationship); he has a career that involves extensive travel. While they establish ground rules that do explicitly rule out other relationships, she feels betrayed when she discovers Chapel sleeping with a masseuse; Chapel exclaims “What about the deal!” without understanding her moral frame of reference.
Even when two people commit themselves entirely to each other, it is difficult to keep the relationship topmost in the daily list of priorities. Work, money, and other distractions have a way of intervening in our daily patterns, and the stable but mundane back-and-forth of a loving relationship often takes a back seat to the hot flash points of minor crisis events. Business strategists are trained to consider two dimensions of issues that present themselves every day: how urgent is the issue and how important is it to make a decision or invest energy in the issue. The “important but non-urgent” quadrant is where we should spend most of our energy, but few leaders actually devote much time to this class of priorities. Instead, we seem to spend our time on “urgent but unimportant” tasks, things that should be delegated to others or simply left alone to resolve themselves.
As many leaders have noted as they near the end of their careers, no one ever wrote as his epitaph “I should have spent more time at the office.” Cherish those that love you and show them that you love them. It’s not too late until it is too late.
The importance of teamwork is a movie cliché, and “For the Love of the Game” includes plenty of supporting characters that help Billy Chapel achieve the perfect game. The owner and head coach both support him in a way that few modern players would recognize. The ninth inning of the game features several athletic feats that would make “Play of the Week” on ESPN when Chapel has lost the speed and finesse to truly control the opposing team’s offense.
Across my professional career and in the work I have done with nonprofit groups, there have been plenty of people around me that helped to make nearly all of the engagements successful. Sometimes there is a clear leader who sets the pace and tone for the organization; other times, the organization rotates the “lead bird” to keep the energy level high. At all times, though, there is recognition that no accomplishment is truly achieved by the willpower of a single person. Rather, the person who records the accomplishment relies on the energies of a team of people who enable his success. I lead a ukulele jam group in a studio behind my house; I know that the group would die if not for the contributions of 4–8 others who contribute songs, take turns teaching new techniques, and encourage new recruits and drop-ins to find their own voices. As Chief Strategy Officer for a startup company, I help to drive the organization toward its business goals without being sidetracked by distractions from competitors and other market influencers. I rely on the creative expertise from our CTO and chief developers, top marketing staff, and our founders to align goals, resources, and energy to achieve our business objectives. I rely on my family to enrich all of our personal lives. I rely on friends to tell me when I’m making mistakes and to provide the mid-course corrections that keep our friendships intact.
John Donne wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Mentor and cherish your team. Be involved in mankind.