Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keeping Score: The Comfort Of Certainty

I know some people stop reading when they come upon a sentence that begins, “Forty years ago…” I understand, but I’ll take my chances.

Forty years ago, I became friends with a former All-Star baseball player. We found ourselves with a common interest – we were both deeply involved in what was then called “Negro Programmed Radio.” It was, in the sixties, a startling new, dynamic force in broadcasting and popular culture, growing by leaps and bounds, amassing listeners and advertisers beyond anyone’s ability to measure or even guess how high it might fly. New radio stations programmed for black audiences were popping up in cities across the nation and existing ones could hardly imagine, no less contain, their rocketing success. It was in this exciting and rewarding business environment that I became friends with this former Major League pitcher.

It’s fair to say that both our careers were tremendously successful and our futures seemed to hold nothing but more of the same. I was already used to being a “businessman” and I handled the overall success as well as I did the inevitable daily bumps in the road. My friend, however, didn’t have it so easy. Despite his quick, and well deserved, ascension to Vice President of a major American corporation, he often took what should have been normal and meaningless setbacks, too seriously, too personally. One day we were talking about a particular injustice he was in the midst of dealing with, when he stopped talking practically in mid-sentence, shook his head as if he had just experienced an epiphany, and then he related the “secret” which had been so suddenly revealed to him.

“In business, there is no score!” What he meant was, there was no score that was universally accepted by all participants. Losers often think they’ve won and winners sometimes fail to savor their victory. Why? Because there’s nobody standing there – somebody with authority – able and willing to tell them the score. In fact, he went on to add, in the game of business, “There’s really no end to the game.” He missed the finality, the comfort of certainty professional sports provided. He yearned for the last out; the winning teammates shaking hands and slapping backs; the smiles on the faces in the boss’s box.

Don’t misunderstand me. My friend was no Willy Loman. Oh, no - he was a World Series Champion! What final score tops that one? In baseball he always knew “the score.” He was either the winning pitcher, or the losing pitcher; never favored by some and opposed by others; never told he was a winner by those who actually, in the secret of their office, marked him down as a loser. In baseball, even the guys you don’t like, he told me, and the ones who don’t like you, they all accept the final score – and not only for determining who won and who lost - but for signaling the end of the contest. And then, with the common acceptance of the game’s conclusion came another wonderful thing – the scheduling of another game tomorrow, another game that would begin scoreless and end with finality, with certainty. “We could all go home and get a good night’s sleep,” he said.

My friend found the absence of these absolute measurements in business hard to take, and although he enjoyed a wonderful career in corporate affairs, he never came to peace with the fact there was no scoreboard to check. I know he respected my opinion, but I was no match for the meaning he found in the large numbers that were illuminated on the big board above and beyond the outfield fence.

In his final years, he went to law school and became an attorney. He told me he wanted to practice as a litigator – fight it out in court! I suppose he was still looking for that final score. I didn’t talk to him just before he died, but afterward I hoped he understood the finality of that turn on the mound, the true meaning of a “complete game performance,” and I dearly wished for him that his last thought would have been that tomorrow’s box score would show a nice, big “W” after his name.

1 comment:

April Greener said...

I believe fully and totally that if you live and love well - it is nothing short of a WIN. I count myself among the lucky ...