I barely count myself as a sports fan by today’s standards … my brother Larry is the real fan, still loyal to our boyhood heroes of the 50s and 60s, our Cleveland Indians and Brown’s. And he’s an attentive student of sports and players via reading, podcasts and sports talk shows. We do share the opinion that baseball is at the pinnacle of professional sports and it’s our tradition to attend every opening day at Minute Maid Park. This year opening day was against the Yankees and CC Sabathia. The Astros won the opener, but the larger attraction of the three game series was the last season appearance of Derek Jeter.
161 games later, in his final career at-bat, Derek Jeter hit a walk-off single to drive in the winning run. Yankees 7, Orioles 6.
Baseball team chemistry has always fascinated me and the relevance to “teambuilding” in business. I recall a funny story about Drayton McLane, the former Astros owner who “preached” teamwork when he spoke to his players. Art Howe, the Astros manager at the time, felt the need to complement Drayton’s pitch; Art said something like “when you are it short and a screaming grounder is hit just to your right, you’re not thinking about teamwork.”
Following Derek Jeter’s historical at-bat, Joe Girardi was asked questions about the evening. I had never seen Girardi interviewed previously and I was struck by his passion and patience to answer every question with respect to the game and for the media. In that 7+ minute YouTube recording he exhibited great leadership. In that time you could tell how he loved the game, his players and the New York fans.
Prior to the start of the game the Yankees had planned for Derek to take a victory lap in the top of the ninth-inning, meet previously retired teammates at home plate … basically symbolizing “time to join us”. That didn’t happen and Girardi was glowing as he described the unscripted scripting that came next. When he realized Derek would bat third in the bottom of the ninth, Girardi took charge. The first Yankee batter reached first and instead of signaling for him to steal second, he had the second batter bunt the runner over to second, setting up the final at-bat. He told Derek “do your thing”. Girardi, in the post-game interview explained, “I’m giving him the opportunity to get this done. He’s come to so many times in his career. I don’t think it could get any better than him getting the walk-off hit”.
A reporter asked Girardi, “how does this rank with all you’ve witnessed?” Girardi: “after the game I texted my brother and told him “I’ve been blessed to have witnessed so many great things in this stadium and in the old stadium. You can’t even dream this stuff up. I’m a lucky man”. I’ll have to admit that authenticity touched me deeply. Who leads today with candor and humility and says “I’m lucky”? And, in the aftermath of a historic event, texts his brother to share his feelings?
I was impressed by the questions from the media as well … questions that revealed the manager’s heart. Someone asked: “why so many good things happen to a person like Derek Jeter ”. Girardi: “I think it’s the work he puts in … when you work and you’re prepared every day and you’re willing to fight through everything … and when you get knocked down, get back up … good things are going to happen”.
In response to “how did the team react in the dugout?”, Girardi: “they didn’t want to miss a second of it. I’ve talked about how great the Yankee fans are. They understand when you do things the right way they really appreciate you and love you and adore you … they want you to play hard … they don’t want you make excuses … and they want you to be accountable … and want you to be tough … and obviously when you get to this level you have a lot of talent so they want you to be a winner. And that’s who he is!”
On the field after the game Derek was interviewed and mic-ed-into the stadium PA system. He told the reporter “everybody’s chanting ‘thank you Derek!. For what?, he said “I’m just trying to do my job!” He thanked his former teammates who he described as brothers and former manager Joe Torre who he said was like a dad. Then he tipped his hat to the Orioles, who man-for-man were up against the dugout railing soaking it all in, for advancing to the playoffs. You can tell he was saying “deserved, so enjoy it.” And when asked what he will miss the most, “the fans”, he said.
Is this parallel a stretch? Great organizations … business or sports … run on inspiration. Players ( employees ), who are led by a manager ( CEO ) that is passionate about the game and loves his or her people who make the bottom line will bond around a great vision of winning every day. I think team building is an outcome of the leader helping everyone succeed … caring about everyone’s contribution … toward the big goal that the leader is passionate about. When that happens, the “season” is a success.