Aug 4, 2009
As the New York Yankees take the field in a four-game home series against the Boston Red Sox this Thursday evening, I share with you some life lessons from the toughest rivalry in professional sports.
I was born in New York City in 1968. Eight years prior, my parents had made the southward migration to Manhattan from Boston, settling on the almost up and coming West Side. Every summer from birth until I was 14, I escaped New York to my grandmother’s house on Cape Cod for about 10 weeks. The salt air of the Cape offered a wonderful respite from the sweltering streets of a city that for many of those years was in rather dramatic decline.
In the summer of 1977, my three best friends on Cape Cod were all neighbors, all from working towns outside of Boston and all named John. We were a little pack of freckled kids who weren’t old enough to know about girls and cars; so we talked about and played baseball all the time. We were great pals, albeit for a significant and for quite sometime not-discussed difference of opinion as to who qualified as the best team in baseball.
Backyard baseball in Massachusetts was a highly partisan affair with pretty simple rules. The three of us and about 15 other kids from the neighborhood would choose sides. A coin was tossed to determine who got to be the Red Sox. The team that lost the toss could be any team but the Yankees. I seem to recall the Cincinnati Reds were often the second choice. I’m not sure if this was because the Reds beat the Yankees the year before to win the 1976 World Series or because one of the older, more athletic kids would force the other team to be the Reds; this would enable him to replicate Carlton Fisk’s dramatic Game Six, stay-fair home run trot from the 1975 Red Sox/Reds World Series (which the Sox lost in Game Seven). Frankly, the cynical side of me always considered simpler reason: the Reds were only an ”o” and an ”x” short of being the hometown heroes.
On the surface, it didn’t really bother me that I was a Yankee fan living amid the fervid youth division of what would be labeled the Red Sox Nation. The innocence of Cape Cod shielded me from an infamously rough summer in New York City. News video, the occasional call from my father and some AP coverage in the Cape Cod Times or Boston Globe were the closest the Son of Sam, the city’s fiscal crisis, the blackout and the historic wave of arson fires that swept the Bronx ever got to me.
Ironically, amid this safe, idyllic seascape setting, it was the Red Sox kids who turned out to be tougher in many ways than whatever perceived mean streets of New York I was missing. Thirty-two years later as I come to work at the top of a large and diversified public relations firm, not a day goes by that I am not reminded of something I learned that summer. I cannot say that I have always acted on those lessons as quickly as I should have – life as a 41-year-old executive is more complicated than that of a nine-year-old boy – but they certainly helped shape me as an adult.
Lesson Number 1: When you are in a hole, stop digging.
My mother used to caution me that Red Sox fans are exceptionally passionate. My dad put it more simply. ”They aahh cert-ah-fy-able; that means nuts, so keep ya mouth shut around ‘em with that Yankees talk.”
I heeded the caution and knew that when it came to being a Yankee fan in Massachusetts a ”don’t ask – don’t tell” policy was best followed. I kept true to maintaining my silence and even developed great variations of Fisk’s catcher’s stance (that was my position and I was good at it) and could awkwardly twist my leg in the batter’s box just like Dwight Evans. I was living a lie but, frankly, who needed the aggravation.
I seem to recall, during an afternoon game, one of my uncles told me to swing like Reggie because it was hot and they needed the breeze (the infamously arrogant and outspoken Yankees right fielder, Reggie Jackson, was having a little trouble connecting during the first half of the 1977 season). One of the Johns asked why my uncle said that. Instead of keeping quiet or passing off a potentially innocuous heckle as simply that, I made some defensive statistical analysis of Jackson’s batting average based on baseball card information. John proceeded to tell all the guys I was a ”wicked lose-ah, Yankee fan.” The secret was out and not on my terms.
In my 19 years in the public relations business, I cannot count how many times we have been brought into a high-profile crisis that had previously been made exponentially worse by a cover up, by saying too much or an otherwise knee-jerk urge to do something – anything.
I am typically a proponent of being proactive in a crisis; but being proactive requires a smart, strategic approach, not an off-the-cuff reaction. As my lame defense of Reggie Jackson demonstrates, it is tempting to very quickly take action when in a high-stakes jam; but don’t do anything until you have played out at least most of the options and looked at all the potential outcomes. Sometimes less is more – at least in the short term.
Lesson 2: Don’t feel badly for bad people.
As predicted, when it came out that I was a Yankee fan, the day-to-day quality of my summer life went into a rather steep decline.
My alleged act of treason quickly made its way to an older kid named McCreedy, an odd introvert who always closed one eye when he spoke and who I thought was crazy. McCreedy, who preferred to be called exclusively by his last name – possibly because it sounded like a psychiatric institution – repeatedly threatened to tie me up and throw me in the ocean. One time he brought a rope. Seriously, the guy was crazy.
I was routinely beaned by inside fastballs, called the ‘Bronx Bumm-ah,’ intentionally walked and, for a brief while, not picked despite the fact I could peg a guy off second base like a nine-year-old Thurman Munson.
I was even challenged to a fight by some older kid – a stereotypical bully and friend of McCreedy. Unbelievable”¦ I was actually summoned to what amounted to a duel during which my loyalty to pinstripe blue was to be defended via fisticuffs. After avoiding the guy for about a week, I ended up squaring off with him in my friend’s back yard. He pretty much started kicking my butt right away. After a few minutes of taking blows to the face, I got mad enough, tackled the kid and started pounding him into the ground. As I was getting the upper hand, the kid started squealing. I somehow felt bad for the guy and let him go. He got up, turned around and broke my lip wide open.
I have made the same mistake in business. On several occasions, for one reason or another, I gave the benefit of the doubt to an individual who I knew deep-down was trying to hurt our company. I have learned that in the working world, as in life, this behavior is typically a pattern, not a one-time event and there is little upside to a wishy-washy approach. Compassion is important, especially in a high-pressure business, but if you know someone is bad news, don’t ease up on him or her.
Actually, there is a lesson 2(a) here – don’t put off confrontations. I knew this guy really had it in for me but I made the mistake of trying to avoid him. Putting it off only ensured that every kid within two miles of my grandmother’s house knew about the upcoming donnybrook where the New Yorker was hopefully going to get pounded back to Central Park.
Lesson 3: Before you do anything that involves the public, look at absolutely everything that could go wrong and re-evaluate it. Do this several times.
That September, my father took me to Yankee Stadium to see my team play the Red Sox. Things were looking good for me. Reggie had come alive and the Yankees were rapidly closing in on their second American League title in two years.
Just after they announced the starting lineups, Bob Sheppard in his baritone voice asked us to please stand for the national anthem ”as recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.” The place instantly erupted into a cannon of boos, followed by a shower of empty beer cups that eventually worked into a rabid crescendo of 55,000 chants of ”Boston Sucks.” We didn’t know the national anthem was over until the players took their positions.
I asked my dad if he could believe the crowd actually booed the national anthem. He said anything was possible in the Bronx but he was just glad he wasn’t the guy who made the decision to play that version.
I’m not sure if someone in the Yankees front office thought the Pops anthem would be a funny irony or a tweak to the visiting club. Regardless, I recall more than 20 guys were arrested and the booing made the news in New York and Boston. The whole Ballantine-fueled affair served as an anarchic precursor to Howard Cosell’s ”Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” declaration several weeks later during Game 2 of the World Series.
This past year, our sports group worked alongside the New York Mets and Citi to open up Citi Field. The account team, Citi and the Mets staff worked very smartly to build anticipation for the new stadium and all its great amenities without offending fans or traditionalists. By planning extensively and troubleshooting the rollout, the group created tremendous excitement without any disappointments, uncontrolled mad dashes or sense among fans that the new stadium was bigger than them. Passions run deep in big baseball towns; so playing out the strategy over and over was not only the best way to do right by the fans but proved invaluable when it came to the smoothness of the opening.
Lesson 4: Believe in something
One afternoon during that 1977 summer, as I was preparing to go home to New York City, I tried to apply rational thought to a discussion about the relative superiority of Yankee baseball.
I mentioned to one of the Johns that if the Yankees were to go on and win the World Series, it would be their 21st World Championship (albeit the first since 1962), compared to the Red Sox’ lone 1918 World Series victory. John quickly dismissed me by saying it didn’t matter how many times the Yankees won the World Series, ”Boston has the Green Monster and Brigham’s Ice Cream”¦ so there.”
There was nothing more to discuss.
John, like all his Red Sox buddies, was a true believer and that was never going to change. Years later, I remembered this as some of my fellow Yankee-fans jumped over to the National League when the 1986 Mets exploded and eventually won the World Series (I won’t rub it in by referencing the losing team).
In an industry where people typically change jobs every 18 to 24 months, I have stayed at the same company for 18 years; two of our managing directors have been here 15 years and the average senior executive has been here eight years. All of us have had great opportunities to work out with other clubs, but I believe with every ounce of me in the company where I work and am proud to be surrounded by a group of individuals who share this belief.
I don’t know what happened to any of those kids I played ball with on Cape Cod but I have to assume two things: 2004 and 2007 were probably better than average years for them; and in 2008, Madonna’s ability to distract third basemen gained her three fans named John.