National | "Aim for a series of small successes": Why a well-managed, talented baseball team resembles a winning political campaign

Issue: "Court in the balance," April 1, 2000

in Jupiter, Fla. - The pace at the Montreal Expos spring training batting cage on March 18 was as frenzied as the one during the climactic week of the Bush-McCain presidential race earlier in the month. To songs like "Born to Be Wild" and the strains of Macarena music, trios of young players eager to make the majors took their last turns: five swings each, then three, then one. The young Expos raced from one spot to another as fans consulted their roster sheets, trying to associate names and numbers. A quarter of a mile away, at the St. Louis Cardinal practice fields-the Cardinals and Expos share a massive spring training complex-the pace was more stately, as befits a series of much better known names. Starting with Mark McGwire, the Cardinal roster is composed of veterans like Ray Lankford, Brian McRae, Eric Davis, Andy Benes, and Pat Hentgen. Each player was stretching, throwing, running easily, and preparing mentally not for a sprint but for the endurance race that starts this month and concludes with the World Series in late October, shortly before America makes either George W. Bush or Al Gore the winner of a parallel marathon. What's vital for fans of either sport to remember, as a poll one week shows the GOP on top and the next week has Democrats in the lead, is that the lengths-and consequent ups and downs-of our presidential and baseball campaigns are probably unequaled around the world. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to the Expos game on March 18, so I asked him about the difference between the 51-day campaign mandated by Canadian law and the American one shaped by the culture that fostered baseball. "Patience is so important here," he said. "As in baseball, you have to work hard, train, wait for an opening, and be ready to translate it into action." The secret that top veterans have learned is how to foster patience without missing openings. Mark McGwire set the tone for the Cardinals on March 18-20 minutes of stretching starting at 10 a.m., 20 minutes of playing catch, 20 minutes of taking throws and ground balls at first base, no risks in this early going. Smiling and joking on a mostly sunny day with the temperature in the 70s, Mr. McGwire chewed gum and blew bubbles. Red Schoendienst, the Cardinal Hall of Famer who sat on a stool gently tossing balls to a coach who was hitting to Mr. McGwire, later talked about "being comfortable with the baseball life," with the rhythms of a long season. The other Hall of Famer present that day, Lou Brock, is part of the Abundant Life Fellowship Church on the north side of St. Louis. He thought about my baseball/politics question and took it in a different direction: "Passion is the key. Passion for the action.... You have to see every game not as a job but an opportunity for joy. Teammates are important for that. A good teammate says to the on-deck hitter, 'Go up and show 'em what we can do.' If he strikes out, good teammates say, 'We'll make up for that guy making you look bad. We'll punish him for you.' When you have good teammates, when you're working or playing with passion, time isn't even a factor, and September seems like March." Comfort plus passion: Ballplayers and managers said the Schoendienst-Brock combo got it about right. Some suggested that in baseball comfort plus passion equals joy, something they typically find to be fleeting and even suspect. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, after greeting in the locker room two hulking visitors from World Championship Wrestling, said that feeling too good is a sure recipe for starting to feel bad: "If you've just hit a home run, the worst thing you can do is go for a home run next time. They're hard to come by. Instead, do the little things, and maybe another home run will come sometime. Aim for a series of small successes." Dark clouds do have silver linings for sportswriters. My son Daniel and I were planning to watch a March 19 game in Ft. Lauderdale between the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, but the rains came and the Orioles waited in the clubhouse and on their bench, casting a melancholy eye at the water-soaked field. Cal Ripken Jr. looked out at the tarp over the infield and mused about his two major league decades of deliberately dampening emotions: "It's counterproductive to celebrate, to get too excited about a good game. The schedule is grueling, fans can get high or low, players can't afford to." If players don't have that even-tempered sensibility, I asked, can they learn it? Mr. Ripken thought so, but "you need to start learning it when you're a kid. If parents make a big thing out of a child's good game, or if they're down after a bad game, that sends the wrong message." Mr. Ripken is backing with dollars his desire to teach "the Ripken way." In January he committed more than $9 million in funding for a stadium and youth baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md. The stadium will be home to a new minor league team, and Mr. Ripken would like the team's nickname to be something connected with Aberdeen's claim to fame, the Aberdeen Proving Ground that was established in 1917 to give the army a place to try out weapons. "But you have to be so careful, so politically correct these days," he added. Other players also recognize sensitivities: Veteran Orioles first baseman Will Clark looked up from the issue of Hunting magazine in his hands to say, in response to my question about comparing political campaigns and baseball seasons, "I'm not going to cross baseball and politics. They're two different animals. But I will say, about baseball, that a 4-for-4 day can throw you off as much as an 0-for-4 day. If you start thinking you've got it made, you'll soon find out that the next day can be a lot different, and generally is." Whether it's a sports cliché or truth, managers almost always stress the mental aspects of sports success. "I don't have any secrets of managing except to maintain composure," said Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, puffing on a cigarette as the game was officially called off. "You don't let yourself get too low or too high, you just don't." He evaluated the Red Sox pitching staff for several reporters and dodged questions about how fast his staff throws: "I don't know a lot about [speed] guns. Charlton Heston and the NRA know all that stuff." Instead, he noted that a veteran relief pitcher, Rod Beck, "has the mentality. He knows how to close games." Mr. Williams praised a rookie pitcher "who understands how to get outs." Baltimore Orioles manager Mike Hargrove praised his shortstop, Mike Bordick, because "he's not flashy like some, but he's very steady. You can count on him." The Florida sun was shining on March 20, and Mark McGwire was taking extra batting practice. The bantering that normally goes on at the batting cage stopped; Mr. McGwire, like Chuck Yeager among the flyers of the 1950s, is at the top of the pyramid, and even teammates seem to regard him with awe. In 1987, when Mr. McGwire was the American League's Rookie of the Year, teammate Reggie Jackson said, "The thing that I like about him is his makeup. He's never too high or too low. He's the same every day." On this particular day, along with the players and journalists who normally are in or around the practice areas, some folks with connections to Cardinal management also had field passes, and Mr. McGwire expressed to a teammate some irritation: "So many f-- people walking around." But he then smiled for a photo of himself and two little girls, and in the game that afternoon crushed a three-run homer to left-center field. Journalists tend to probe for the highs and lows that veteran players downplay. Some Americans find the rhythm of a long season or a long campaign less interesting than the frenzied beats of an Expos batting practice or a Canadian political contest. But almost every major league regular hits a home run sometime; the test is consistency over the marathon. How do we find out who can show the right stuff in baseball over an extended period, and-much more important-who can display a steadiness in presidential leadership that has been rare over the past seven-going-on-eight years? We could do worse than the system that from now through November will give the Republican and Democratic candidates a run-through well-described by the word Mr. McGwire used in summarizing his 70-home-run season: "Grueling."

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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