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May 8, 2012 / trajsingh

Showboating with an elephant in the room

I like baseball. Ever since the ’86 Mets won the World Series I’ve been a fan. And ever since then I’ve been struggling to understand the sport. Not just the rules (although they are, it seems, practically impossible to master unless you devote an entire lifetime to the task) but also the ethos.

[An aside on the rules, I now understand the infield fly rule. But not why sometimes someone strikes out and they still can run to first base unless the catcher tags them or throws them out. Or why you can argue about almost anything except balls and strikes (the thing you’d most want to argue about). And that thing about kicking dirt over the umpire’s shoes – that isn’t a rule but it’s hilarious. I also love how Americans always ask about Cricket – another game it takes a lifetime to understand – and they ask you to explain the rules to them but in fact they don’t want to know the rules, they just want to hold it up as a shining example of British incomprehensibility.]

Anyhow, back to the ethos. A couple of days ago, a pitcher deliberately threw the baseball at a batter. This happens a fair amount, especially when you consider 30 teams play 162 games every season, not including the playoffs. In this case it was slightly unusual for two reasons. 1. the batter is a much-hyped rookie player only 19 years old (Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals) but with a reputation for being ‘cocky’ (more on this later). 2. the pitcher (Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies) admitted he did it deliberately.

Hamels was suspended for five games (not actually a big deal since starting pitchers like Hamels only play once every five days anyway, so he might not in fact miss a single game he is due to pitch in) by the baseball league. But why did he do it? By which I mean, deliberately hit Harper, and then admit it. Later in the game, the pitcher for the Nationals hit Cole Hamels when he was batting. He denied doing it deliberately, which is what usually happens, but it was clearly retaliation. And that is the way Baseball works. Your guy gets hit, you hit their guy. Someone barrels into your catcher trying to score a run, you do the same to their catcher. But it gets even more petty. If, when hitting a home run, the batter ‘flips’ his bat into the air when commencing to trot around the bases, that’s cause for anger too. Or if they trot too slowly, or pump their fists too much. And there’s more: stealing a base when your team is winning by a lot, or celebrating in too ostentatious a manner with your team mates are also frowned upon. Baseball has rules aplenty, but the unwritten rule book is what gets you.

Whereas that is somewhat unusual in sports (they all have some of this, but baseball seems to have accreted the most), it is terrifically common in all sorts of other settings, including in the world of business. Enter an unknown situation with a great idea or solution, and not conforming to the unwritten rules will kill you pretty much every time. This is why innovation experts bang on about the culture of a place stifling innovation. It’s tough to innovate when, almost by definition, that means not playing by the rules, unwritten or otherwise.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have probably guessed I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, but I would say that the first step to resolving it is creating the ability to talk about what those unwritten rules are. Without that, you’ll just be kicking dirt on to the umpire’s shoes.

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