Lessons From the Boys of Summer

Tom Peters

As I write, and despite a staggering string of injuries, the Oakland A’s are again a contending team, after a disappointing 1991. As a longtime Bay Area resident, I’ve followed the club through their ups and downs—mostly ups, since the Haas family also owners of Levi Strauss & Co.) bought the team in 1980. But regardless of where the A’s finish in the standings this year, they offer us all lessons in mastering a volatile environment.

1. You can’t win without raw talent. I’ll discuss other factors, but in the long haul you have to dig deep into your wallet and get the players. The A’s do a lot well, and paying the price for Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, and Rickey Henderson is a big start.

2. Raw talent is no panacea. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner tapped his awesomely deep wallet to collect expensive free agents by the bushel. But he produced few winners. (In fact, no team has played so consistently below its potential. Twenty-five superstars (the number of players on a major league roster), randomly loosed on the ball field in the presence of a maniacal owner and an unstable management team, don’t automatically get the job done.

3. Character counts! The Haas family has character in spades. (For a century, the Haases and Levi Strauss have pioneered employee development and community involvement.) A’s Manager Tony La Russa and General Manager Sandy Alderson are, not surprisingly, cut from the same cloth. They are shrewd baseball men, to be sure, but they are also multidimensional human beings, who care as much about the players, coaches and community as the wins and losses. Character is the glue that helps most in turning a collection of talented individuals into a high-performance unit—which is especially important in the face of adversity. Arguably, only the Los Angeles Dodgers in major league baseball and the Boston Celtics in pro basketball can match the A’s when it comes to character at the top—and thus throughout the organization.

4. Long-term commitment is key. The A’s have made several extraordinary late-season trades, like the Jose Canseco deal, to plug holes in their lineup; you must do such things to win pennants. On the other hand, the ballclub and its top management are clearly in it for the long run. They understand what it takes to win it all this year, but don’t pursue the goal with such frenzy that they destroy the emotional fabric of the enterprise—i.e., bringing along young players too fast, capriciously benching veteran contributors because of a slump.

5. Energy and emotion count almost as much ats talent. In a season marked by a phenomenal number of injuries, rookies and unsung others have come through for the A’s time and again. Unlike many other major league squads, the A’s are really a team. La Russa understands the importance of that at least as well as any manager I’ve come across in 40 years of following baseball. (Only Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda holds a candle to La Russa on this score.)

6. Hustle is contagious. La Russa, unlike some managers, is a hustler with an extraordinary work ethic—and is a nut about hustle in general. And hustle—if the manager can induce it from all 25 players, over the course of a mercilessly long, 162-game regular season—makes an enormous difference.

7. Strategy counts. While he was San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh brought a new kind of passing game to the National Football League; it was a strategic advantage that had surprising staying power. Likewise, the A’s La Russa has learned to use “middle relievers,” those who pitch between the “starter” and the “closer,” in a way that none of his peers can match; that practice also seems to have surprising staying power. (Such fundamental contributions to strategy stand out: Baseball managers, unlike their football counterparts, are seldom the most inventive souls—and that’s putting it kindly.)

8. The mundane matters. Some major league baseball teams execute well. Some are sloppy. The winning manager and coaching staff (as well as the winning general manager, who weeds out even “great” talent that doesn’t get the message) pay attention to the details. Year in and year out, no team executed the “little stuff” better than Manager Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles of the 1970s; today, the same can be said of La Russa’s Oakland team.

9. Patience pays. Patience is not easy, particularly with the daily scrutiny of the local press. This year the A’s have benefited from Mark McGwire’s stellar play. Most fans (including yours truly) wanted McGwire “out of there” just last year, when his batting average hovered around .200. La Russa, again, is tops in waiting out the droughts that come to almost every player, no matter how talented.

There are big problems with transferring these ideas beyond the confines of the stadium. (In sports, the field is precisely defined and the rules are the same for everyone; the goal is clear; etc.) Nevertheless, professional sports are big business, and a talent-based business. Many a corporation, small and large, high tech and low, could learn a lot from Mssrs. Haas, Alderson, La Russa—and the Oakland A’s.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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