Friday, October 7, 2011

(empo-tymshft) Nine

[NOTE: I like to pride myself on taking the most tangential story and using it to expound on a business lesson. I'm not going to attempt that with this post, although I believe that there are business lessons to be learned here. This is a story that has been bouncing around in my head for...well, it's been bouncing around for a long time. Hope you like it.]


No one would ever describe the Forever Bar as snooty. It was located in the east side of town, in an older section of the city. The bar itself was a little shabby, but it wasn't dirty. For those who liked such places, it was downright comforting.

On this Tuesday morning the bar was mostly empty. There were just four people in the bar. The bartender was unpacking the day's deliveries. A nondescript blond man in the back left corner of the bar was nursing a dark drink. At the front of the bar, two old friends were talking baseball. From where they sat, they could see the baseball stadium, a couple of blocks away.

"I don't know about this season," said one of the men.

"They did well in spring training."

"Yeah, but Old Man Cobb passed away. He's been here forever."

"That was a shock. I saw him downtown a couple of months ago. He looked healthy."

"And I thought that Junior Cobb would get the general manager job, but this new owner had other ideas."


Later that day, two men in suits and ties got out of a Mercedes in front of an office building just a block from the Forever Bar. The older man, Frick, was the new general manager of the baseball team. The younger man, Maris, was his assistant.

After they entered the front door of the team offices, they immediately ran into an awkward situation. As Frick and Maris were entering the building, Cobb Junior was carrying the last of his belongings out the door.

"Good afternoon," said Maris. Frick remained silent.

"Your offices are upstairs," replied Cobb. "Uh, before I go, I need to speak to you privately. There are a couple of important things that I needed to, um, pass on about the team. Just to keep things smooth."

Frick, who had been quiet, spoke. "I appreciate your willingness to help," he said, "but I've been charged to take a look at the team with a new set of eyes. Start with a clean slate, as it were."

"It would just take a minute," pleaded Cobb.

"Sorry," Frick replied. "I have a job to do. Come, let's go," he said to Maris, heading up the stairs.


Two days later, Maris was in Frick's office, going over some papers.

"I can't believe how shoddily this team has been run!" exclaimed Frick. "Money bleeding all over the place. Look at how much we're paying these groundskeepers. Just to cut grass! I'll fire 'em tomorrow, and we'll get a service in here. The season doesn't start for another few days; they should be up to speed in time."

"Where are we going to find a groundskeeping service?" asked Maris.

"We'll use the grass crew that maintains the Frick Company facilities. They've done great work for the last two years!"

Maris typed a note on his laptop: "New groundskeeping service - get name from Betty."

Frick stood up. "Well, I'm about ready for lunch. Did we finish going over the 40 man roster?"

"Not completely," replied Maris. "We still have one more player to review."

"Oh yeah, that Dave guy. Hardly ever plays up here. Comes to spring training, gets sent down to the minors, and then comes up in September."

Maris consulted his notes. "We're only paying him the minimum."

"Yeah, but is he producing?" Frick exclaimed. "It's one thing to cut costs. It's another thing entirely to have cheap labor. If he were producing, I'd keep him, but he's a drag on the organization. We have to win this year, and we're not going to win if we're carrying perpetual minor leaguers."

"Do you want to fire him?" asked Maris.

"No," replied Frick. "I want you to fire him. I don't have time. I have to make sure the opening day promotion is getting onto the website."

Frick walked out the door. "Take care of it today."


On Thursday afternoon, down in the stadium clubhouse, everyone was preparing for tonight's game. It was only an exhibition game, but the team had just returned to town from spring training. While the groundskeepers (who didn't know what was going to happen to them the next day) were bustling to get the infield ready, and while the ticket and food vendors were running about, the clubhouse was mostly silent - not typical for the first home exhibition game of the season. The only animation came from Maris, who was talking to a TV crew.

"We believe that we had an excellent spring training, and we're excited to be back here at the stadium," said Maris to the camera. "Mr. Frick, myself, and the entire team are committed to making this season a winning season."

As the TV cameras shut off, Maris happened to see Dave, his bags packed, heading over to the manager. Even in the quiet of the clubhouse, Maris couldn't hear what Dave was saying. But he did hear the manager's reply. "Sure, kid."

The manager then spoke up. "Team meeting! All press and everyone else clear out!"

Maris stood for a moment, not sure if "everyone" included him. He started to walk toward the manager.

The manager grunted in his direction. "Dave wants to say good bye to the team."

"Should I stay?" asked Maris.

"Since you're the guy who canned him," replied the manager, "it's probably best if you leave."

Maris filed out of the door with the others, and shut the door on his way out.


A couple of weeks later, the two friends were getting an afternoon drink at the Forever Bar. And they were glum.

"Oh and 10," muttered one of them.

"Unbelievable," said the other, staring at his beer.

"What's into them? The team is playing like they got blocks on their feet, and the manager's managing like he's got a block in his head."

"Did you hear Jim Rome? He was calling us the Cleveland Spiders."

"The who?"

"The Cleveland Spiders. They lost like a hundred games or something back in the 1800s."

"Well, that means that they won about 54. I'm not sure if our team can win that many."

"Well, at least they won't lose today."

"Yeah, it's an off day. They're traveling back home."

" know, I don't think I'm gonna go to the game tomorrow night."

"I was thinking the same thing. It's depressing."

"The whole town's depressing. Look at this bar! It's late afternoon, and we're the only two here. Normally this place is packed, even when the team's away."

"It's like the team is cursed or something."



Two nights later, Maris was in his office after the game. Two more losses to add to the total.

The front office was as despondent as the fans. Frick was looking at declining attendance figures - the two guys in the Forever Bar weren't the only two who were skipping this home stand.

Maris, while concerned about the receipts, was also concerned about the team. Maris truly loved the game of baseball, and he was at a complete loss as to what had gone wrong. The manager and players weren't obviously doing anything bad, but for some reason they just weren't winning.

A folder with last year's records was sitting open on Maris' desk. ("Paper records?" exclaimed the tech-savvy Frick when he found out that the team wasn't computerized.) Maris was looking through the files, searching for any clue that could suggest how to set things right. Last year's season was a losing season, but nothing like this.

He was staring at last year's spring training photo, and happened to notice Dave in the back of the crowd, in the upper left corner. Dave's last spring training photo, Maris thought. (He had been in this year's photo, but Frick had Dave airbrushed out after Dave left the team.) At least we're better off than him today, mused Maris. There was Dave in the picture, just a year ago, smiling as if he didn't have a care in the world. He'd been trying to get to the major leagues for a few years, and would stay up for a few games here and there, but never could stick. Now his dreams were dashed, Maris thought.

About a half hour later, Maris was looking at the folder from two years ago and glanced at the team photo. There was Dave, in the upper left corner, smiling again. There wasn't a personnel file on Dave - Old Man Cobb never seemed to keep a file on Dave, probably because he was never part of the 25 man roster - so Maris didn't know how long he had been with the team. How many years had Dave been trying to stick with the team? Maris wondered.

On an impulse, Maris found the folder from three years ago and immediately searched for the spring training picture. There was Dave, smiling in the back as usual.

Maris went through more and more of the folders. Six years ago - the last winning season - Dave was there. Ten years ago - the team's playoff run - there was Dave, in the upper left corner, looking about the same as he did when Maris fired him.

Maris continued to go through the files, like a man possessed.


Early the next morning, the janitor - another man who previously worked for the Frick Company - found Maris at his desk, appearing to be fast asleep.

A folder with the label "1927" lay open before him, and Maris' finger was resting in the corner of a picture of the team.

Maris' face was dead white.


The two friends didn't come to the Forever Bar any more. Hardly anyone did. The bartender had cut back his deliveries, so it didn't take long to stock everything up.

Early one morning, the nondescript man with blond hair walked into the bar, but instead of heading to his usual seat in the back left corner, he headed to a barstool next to the bartender.

"Welcome back!" said the bartender with a smile on his face. "You've been away for a while."

"Yeah," said the man. "I had to leave for a while. I'll have the usual,:" he said, getting out his wallet.

"No, you're not paying for this," said the bartender. "I don't charge people after they've lost their job."

"No, I'm OK, Sam," said the man. "That cash register looks empty; I oughta put something into it."

"I appreciate that, Dave," replied the bartender. "But if you ever need anything, I'll take care of you. You've taken care of me and my family all these years."

"Well, you're a good man," replied Dave. "And your father was a good man, and your grandfather was a good man. And your great-grandfather"

"Dave," asked the bartender. "How are you taking it?"

"Well, it's rough," replied Dave, "but this isn't the first time I ever lost a job."

"Yeah, I know," reflected the bartender. "I heard how my great-grandfather bought the bar in 1925, when the previous owner had to sell after two years of losses. I heard that at one point you were the only guy coming in the bar. Spending all evenings here, since you weren't working"

"Yeah, I remember," said Dave. "But not every everning. Once I went to a game. Nobody recognized me, and I left after an inning. It just was too painful to watch. Hey, I think I'll have another."

"You're having a second?" asked the bartender. "But you gotta - oh, wait. You don't. But this one's on me. I insist."

"Thanks." Dave smiled and drank his second round, pretending not to notice that the bartender was staring at him.

"Dave," asked the bartender. "Do you think you'll make it back to the team and break the curse? I don't think I can handle two years of this," looking at the nearly empty bar, thinking about the nearly empty stadium, and wondering about the nearly empty city

"Well, Sam," replied Dave, "I've seen a lot of team owners in my day. And this one is pretty impatient. He's gonna demand results now, and if he doesn't get them in a couple of weeks - and he won't - that new general manager will be out on the street, same as me. And then the owner will bring in a new general manager, and the same thing will happen again. Finally - probably sooner rather than later - the owner will swallow his pride and ask to have a meeting with Cobb Junior. And then Cobb will tell him the story. The owner won't believe it at first, but by that time he won't have anything to lose. I'll be added to the roster, and things will be back to normal."

"You sure about that?" asked the bartender.

"I'm sure," said Dave confidently.

Dave hated to lie to the bartender, but he didn't have the heart to tell the bartender the truth. The truth was that Dave had been let go from the team three times - once in 1899, once in 1925, and then this spring.

And as every baseball fan knows, three strikes and you're out.

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