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The Four Most Exciting Words in Sports

February 4, 2013

I live in a winter state. This winter has had lots of snow, ice, days of sub freezing temperatures. But around the first of February I start getting excited about the Four Most Exciting Words in Sports.

If you’ve followed my twitter or facebook updates, you’ve seen me tease at what these words are. Some of the responses ranged from the amusing:

Mariners out of Playoffs

to the serious,

Gentleman, start your engines.

But, to me, the four most exciting words in sports are: Pitchers and Catchers Report! It marks the start of the baseball season, and although there’s still snow on the ground, it brings to mind images of sun-kissed days spend watching 18 men chase a small white ball around a really big green lawn.

And I love it.

The regular players won’t show up for another week or so. And actual Spring Training games will be an additional couple of weeks after that. Gone are the days when baseball players would take the off season, well. . .off. Most of these guys have been playing winter ball or at the very least working out since the season ended last October.

But, no matter how much work the players have done on their own, or with a team in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, when they come into Spring Training, they are not nearly as sharp as they were at the end of last season, or as they will be on Opening Day. A big reason for that is that the players have to learn to work together as a team.

Now some teams are blessed (or cursed) with a fairly stable roster year to year. Derek Jeter has been the Yankees shortstop since he came up with the Yankees in 1995. That’s some pretty good consistency.

Still Jeter has to learn the rest of the team. He’s thrown to 17 first basemen in the past 17 years.

Teams are similar. Just because you put a group of people together under a common manager, or around a common project, doesn’t make them a team. If any MLB team decided to skip Spring Training, even non-baseball fans would know about it, because once the season started they would likely lose every game until they worked through how to be a team.

Now, you might be asking, “How does this related to businesses? We don’t have the luxury of sending everyone on a our project team to Arizona for a month at the end of Winter to let them learn how to be a team. And we don’t really have a season. Our season is never ending.”

All of that is true. But, you don’t have to send you project teams to Florida or Arizona for the Spring. But, you can still draw some lessons from Spring Training and apply them to the business world.

A baseball team, as everyone knows has 9 positions on it. When we were kids, we’d pretty much take any of the 7 interchangeable positions without regard to “who is the best 2nd baseman,” or “who has the best range at shortstop.” Of course, the two non-interchangable positions were pitcher, he had to be the guy who could actually throw it over the plate, and right field, which was reserved for the most uncoordinated kid on the team.

But a modern baseball team needs people with specific skills at each position. The corners, 1st and 3rd base, left and right field, are you power guys. I’ve seen first basemen who could barely walk, but they could hit it a mile! Your middle infielders, shortstop and 2nd base, had to be guys who had great range and could make an accurate throw to first. Center field? Often the best player on the team. He needed great range, he needed a great arm, and he needed to be able to direct the other two fielders.

The catcher is the guy who calls the game and is often the smartest guy on the team. (Yes, I know that Yogi Berra was a catcher, and he didn’t say half the things he said.) And that leave the pitcher. But even there, you have right and left handed starters. You have the long relief guy, the short relief guy, the setup man and the closer. There a reason that on a 25 man roster, typically 11 or 12 are pitchers.

So, back to business. Your team has specific positions you need to fill. On my last team, we had a Program Manager. He owned the budget and the money. A Project Manager, he was responsible for the schedule and identifying the needs. We had engineers. Like pitchers, they were specialists. The network guy, or the database guy, or the storage guy. And the team lead. He’s like the manager. Often doesn’t do any of the work, but makes sure that all the rest of the team members have everything they need and know how to work together.

Spring training is a time for everyone to learn their own role and figure out how to work with people in the other positions.

When you create a team, or when you team gets a new project, it’s important that you go through the same process. It probably doesn’t take a month, unless you have a completely new team working on a completely new project. Sometimes it can be as short as an hour. But, just like the team that skips Spring Training is going to struggle once the season starts, if you have team members who are unsure of their roles, or don’t understand how best to communicate with their coworkers, you are going to struggle.

The great thing about Spring Training is that at the end of it, we here the TWO most exciting words in sports: PLAY BALL!

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