Extra Inning With Ripken
In an interview with Business Officer, baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. builds on his keynote address at the NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting in Boston. With interviewer John Walda, NACUBO president and CEO, Ripken shares the ways that some of his toughest sports challenges might apply to the tight spots in which business officers find themselves today.
Watch video clips of John Walda's interview with Cal Ripken Jr.
Video footage by the August Jackson Co.
After a general session speech that inspired a standing ovation at the NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting in Boston, baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. talked with John Walda, president and CEO of NACUBO. Following is an edited transcript of the interview, in which Ripken explains the importance of creative problem solving, the power of being positive, and the ways in which he has applied the values and principles of baseball to his transition into the business world.
Many things that you learned as a baseball player might be quite helpful to our members. For example, thinking about the 20-plus years in which you played ball, you must have come across some pitchers that absolutely had your number. Who were they and what might you have done differently to prepare to hit against challengers who were particularly intimidating?
That's an interesting subject, because sometimes you're going to have the pitcher's number, and it's going to be easy for you. You feel like you don't have to do anything more in your preparation. Others you can't hit, and you have to figure out just what you'll do to connect with the ball.
Rich “Goose” Gossage was a guy like that. When I first came along, he was an intimidating guy who threw 100-mile-an-hour pitches. He's a Hall of Famer now. He totally intimidated me, standing at the plate. So, it wasn't so much that I couldn't get a hit off someone that threw at that speed, it was more that I was physically intimidated by him and thinking about getting hit by the ball.
I came up with a way of solving this problem. I knew that one of my teammates was friends with Goose, and I overheard that they were going to go out to a particular place to have a bite to eat after one of the games. So I showed up there on purpose and, sure enough, they invited me to join them. I got to know Goose and found out that he's a wonderful man. That kind of took the edge away and shortly afterward I got four hits off him in my next five at bats.
With other pitchers, it was the pitches themselves that were the problem. Guys like Scott Erickson or Kevin Brown threw heavy sinker balls. To hit those, I had to become more disciplined and maybe change my approach to how to hit, or learn their pitching patterns a little bit more. So, sometimes, it required a better game plan that would give me confidence and a better chance to hit.
I never took for granted that it was going to be easy, and, for the pitchers who made things harder, I had to figure out other ways to gain back the advantage.
I know you “owned” a couple of pitchers, too. Was it tempting to take it as kind of a day off, when you're facing somebody that you hit consistently?
The key to hitting, or to competing at the highest level, is to be able to relax in that environment and allow your abilities to come through. Of course, sometimes you can go to the other extreme, taking it too nonchalantly and thinking, “OK. I own this guy; I hit really well; and I'm not really going to give it my full focus and attention.” We all need to guard against that kind of overconfidence.
I like to remember the saying, “You don't want to get too high when things are going well. And, you don't want to get too low when they're not.” That holds true for your preparation, too. Don't take for granted that this is going to be an easy sale or that an upcoming presentation will go well. Whatever the goal, put the work into it, pay the necessary attention to it—and you'll usually end up with good results. As soon as you start to take the shortcut, you find out you're not ready for the moment.
One of the things that really struck me about your presentation was the reminder that, over the years that you played for the Orioles, you had nine different managers. That is something that business officers and their colleagues can relate to, since they often work for many different college and university presidents. In your career, you must have had managers that you got along with better than you did with certain others. Several might have been problematic in some ways. What did you do to try to make those relationship as good as they could be, and how did you live with situations in which you were playing for somebody that you didn't have as much respect for?
You always have to figure out how you can make the best of any situation. And, when you have a good rapport and a good relationship—and there's a good, honest exchange—that makes it easy. The more challenging ones are obviously more difficult. And, while you try not to be overly manipulative, it's useful to try to help the difficult manager to manage you by taking the lead.
In my case, if I found that the manager wasn't creating the right expectations, or I was unsure exactly what the manager really wanted, I had the courage to go and ask those questions. As I mentioned in my presentation, the manager usually asked me to outline my expectations of myself—and would eventually agree to the plan I laid out for myself. This doesn't have to be confrontational, and it doesn't have to be that you're too smart for your own britches. It's just necessary to start a dialogue and a conversation.
Also, most positive relationships are built on trust. So it's important to establish particular trust points and to remember that the relationship is not about anybody else in the room—only about the two of you. Pick a positive time to talk—don't go in when the game is over and try to start a conversation when things haven't gone well. You really want to make sure that you select a time when the manager is upbeat and the privacy of your meeting can be maintained.
Also, figure out ways to get in front of a difficult manager and let that person know that you're only trying to do things that would make the situation better. With that attitude, the rest usually becomes easier. But, these relationships can definitely be challenging and require you to think about how to break through. Of course, the ideal relationship is the one you're looking for, but that's usually not reality.
It takes some effort and courage to face up to a difficult manager. Otherwise, more of the players that you talked about in your speech would have taken advantage of the opportunity to build that relationship.
Yes, and most people think it's confrontational to have a blunt talk with your manager. I always looked at my manager as another human being, another person, no different than I was—basically a good baseball guy. And, we could relate through the language of baseball. But, you have to have the courage to at least start the conversation and to realize that you never know where it's going to go.
On another subject, you know well from being a businessman now that these economic times are challenging. Like you, business officers and colleges have had to deal with difficult budget issues over the past year, and will continue to for a while. At some point in time, this can get your spirit down. When you were speaking today and reading from your book, I gave a lot of thought to what it must have been like to have a 21-game losing streak and to deal with other difficult times. What does a team do—in sports or business—when things aren't going so well? Can somebody on the team really rally the spirits of players, or do you just have to live through it and hope for better times?
It's all those things, really. And key guys on the team help with your chemistry and your “culture”—to use a business term—to keep the situation a little lighter and keep it positive. I tend to look at things more optimistically and, no matter how bad something is, I think: “OK, there's a silver lining here somewhere. Let's keep searching for it and be willing to try new things to uncover it.” I often look back to some of the more difficult times and think that, if you love what you do and you know you can look forward to some really good periods, it's easier to stay positive.
That said, it is hard to stay optimistic during prolonged difficulties. At the same time, if you're in a slump, the situation can be prolonged by the way in which you deal with it. If you mope around and think you'll never get another hit and you'll never get out of this slump, chances are that you'll remain in that position for a long time. But, if you start to look at new techniques or practice different drills, you start to send yourself in a positive direction where hope starts to be restored. When that happens, you begin to expect good things to happen.
It's all about how you manage your highs and lows—your slumps or bad periods—that really minimizes them or maximizes them. An optimistic approach, a new angle, or trying something different will often send you in the right direction.
You must have been, in the view of your teammates, Mr. Optimism for the Orioles. Does anyone else come to mind who could really lift the spirits of the team?
There's always a card on the team who is very social and willing to use humor in a way that cuts the tension. That was my brother Billy. He was the card in the clubhouse who would usually say what you'd been thinking but had been afraid to mention. He'd do it in a fun way, though, and people would then laugh about whatever it was, releasing the tension or the pressure. Billy was on the team when we were 0 and 21. Our dad had been fired after six games, so we were both angry. But Billy turned more to helping me and the rest of the team, by not bringing so much attention to the negative, but looking at the positives. You need one of these people on your team, or in the clubhouse, that can lighten the load a bit. Humor is a good way to do that, but, it takes a special person to deliver a message that way.
Believe me, every CFO's office needs someone like that, too, these days. But on the brighter side, you played in the major leagues for 21 years. And, your career, frankly, was terrific right up to the end. What slowed you down was a back injury. And then you made the decision, in the 2001 season, that that would be it. You've described how passionate you had to be about baseball to play that long and that successfully. How difficult was the decision to leave the game?
That was definitely hard. When you do something for so long and you love doing it, there's a sense of loss when you decide to leave it. I thought long and hard about it. When I thought about how hard it was to continue to play, I also recognized that I'd had a full career and I was satisfied with having been able to play for so long. I also knew I was going to be able to get into the youth baseball business. So, for me, it was ending one part of my baseball life and starting a new phase. Part of the reason that I announced my retirement when I did was that I was able to answer the question, “What are you going to do next?”
It was the right time, and I knew that there was a new beginning. Many athletes who struggle with leaving their careers don't have something to walk into. Fortunately, I had planned a little better than that. And, I knew my interest was going to carry me in a general direction relating to baseball. Once I knew I was going that way, I was excited about the prospects.
I didn't really need a farewell tour, but it turned out to be a good way to say goodbye to the fans and bring closure to that side of my life. The most exciting part was definitely the idea of what would happen next. How would I apply all that time? In the end, you get your feeling of self-worth by what you do. If you've made a lot of money in sports, which many athletes do, you can choose to do any number of things. But, money itself doesn't bring the fulfillment that can come from focusing your effort and attention on an area where you can make a difference.
In my new ventures, we've been able to gather a little momentum in youth sports. We've bought a few minor league teams, and we have a couple of kids' complexes. The better we tweak those models, the better chance we have to expand to other markets.
I get a genuine sense that the principles that made you successful as a baseball player have transitioned very well into business. Was it still difficult? What did you have to learn to make the shift?
As I went out in the business world, I thought: “Everyone is 30 years ahead of me. The terminology, the culture, and so many things are different. I'm looking at a long educational learning curve.” But, then I thought about all I'd learned from my baseball career and how I might apply that to what I was doing next. Basically, the values and the principles are the same. I mean, hard work is hard work. Preparation is preparation. Your individual responsibility, your individual job, is important. But, also, how do you position that in the context of being part of a good team? All those things apply in business, and it's just a matter of learning the particular business, which I continue to do. It's fun to experience new things, but the principles and values you bring don't change.
One of the things you do now that's quite significant is to contribute back to the community through youth baseball and your foundation. These are difficult times for philanthropy. How do you see this affecting your work, and how will you try to get through difficult times and continue to add the value and the service that you provide to the communities that you touch?
Raising money is definitely tougher; doing anything is tougher right now. At the first sign of bad times, you really want to look at the things that you can control, tighten up the ship a bit, and be more efficient. That's a healthy exercise for any business. With these kinds of challenges, you have to ask yourself some tough questions: How can you tap into your creativity? What are some new ways to raise money? Who do you partner with? Our numbers will probably be a little bit down this year as compared to previous years, but I firmly believe that when you go through this kind of exercise, you'll be better on the other side for stretching yourself and figuring out new concepts.
We've hired a great director for the foundation, and he's already started to anticipate a lot of the different issues. We've also tried some new things. You can't be afraid to do that, because those efforts start you off in another direction. We've been pretty successful with these things so far. The exciting part is that we're a better organization as a result of all this.
JOHN WALDA is president and chief executive officer of NACUBO.