Winning: Not Just About the X’s and O’s…

Growing up I was an awesome baseball player.  I ate, slept breathed the game.  Most times my talents were head and shoulders above any other player on the field.  Those who know me you know I don’t say these words lightly or to brag.  Certainly there is a much larger point to this story.  Hitting, fielding and strategy came easy for me and my passion caused me to work really hard at it.

I wanted to be a professional baseball player.  A series of unfortunate events made that a challenge I did not overcome.  As an adult I took up the game of basketball.  There were two reasons for this. 

1) I wanted to compete like I did in baseball.

2) It was easier to get 2-20 guys to play hoops than it was 18 to play baseball on any given day.

I’d played hoops growing up on the playgrounds or in gym class.  But I never went out for the team.  I pretty much started from scratch.   The guys I hung out with played often. In the summer, we played 5 nights a week.  Some of those guys were pretty damn good too.  Most were better than me.  I hung around getting ‘next’ or lobbied to get myself on a team.  Most times I came early to make sure I played before the well known ballers got to the court.  If my team didn’t win, my other four teammates would get picked up but that may have been the end of my night.  Having that feeling of desperation, I had to figure things out pretty quickly. 

Coach Board

I started with what I had.  I was fast, intelligent and fiercely competitive.  Scoring wise I had a quick first step and got to the hoop at will with only a right hand.  But that wasn’t my focus.  I worked on my defense, passing and setting picks.  Furthermore, I did what nobody else wanted to do, took on the best offensive player on the other team.  I took plenty of licks too.  Sometimes the game was over with before it even got started.  As time went on I got better at it though.  I became that guy that no offensive juggernaut my size or slightly above wanted to see.  They knew I would be on them like white on rice.  My goal was to shut them down.  For the upper echelon players, my goal was to bide my time, play my role and make an impact at a critical point before the final score was decided.  For example; if the game went to 12, even if my man scored 8, my goal was to make him miss or make a mistake at 10 or 11.  If the game was close my team still had a chance to win.

This happened more times than I can say.  And yet, as my game grew my status seemed stifled.  A playground full of guys can see me dominate defensively, hit a few jump shots and still leave me standing on the sidelines if my previous team lost.

After a while, my intensity and almost hatred of sporting perceptions of disrespect increased.  Since I wasn’t from the area that I lived in at the time, some of the guys would pick lesser players than me just because they knew them better.  Being picked last when I wasn’t the 10th best player on the court drove me harder.  My quiet yet burning mantra would be: “I know my own captain don’t respect me.  But I ended up with this team.  So fine.  YOU (the other team captain) on the other hand are going to regret that you didn’t pick me.  I’m going to make your life hell!  And most of the time I did just that.  Nothing gave me more joy and inner satisfaction that winning those games.

Fast forward 20 some years later, that chip never left my shoulder.  Among ‘serious hoopers,’ talent wise I was a serviceable basketball player.  I never tried to be Jordan but I knew my role and I knew how to win.  By this time I could score too.  I spent years in high level competition and seldom had my confidence shaken.  At this time, my mindset was to take on whatever role I sensed my team needed to help us win.  In my late 30s I started going to this gym on Monday and Wednesday nights.  There were many hoopers and wanna-be-hoopers.  Most of them at least a decade younger than me.  The games were intense.  One of my most memorable hoops moments happened as a result of me getting my lunch handed to me.  In this particular game I was matched against a local legend.  He was major in college and played in the pros too. I competed against this dude as hard and as smart as I could.  He shook me loose once and after that he never took an open shot against me.  I was all but in his shorts.  None of that mattered.  He ate me for lunch.  Tore my ass to pieces scoring at will.  I may have been in his mix, but he disposed of me like a professional assassin.  I walked away feeling good.  I knew he earned every basket he got. I was beaten by a much better man that night.  Charge it to the game…it happens.

Playground

But what happened the next time out is what surprised me.  The same player that busted my ass two nights before picked me on his team.  Me!  Of all the guys on the court I was the FIRST one he picked.  Not only that, I brought that same intensity and confidence with me and we rolled off 6 straight games that night closing the gym undefeated!  Every time I shot the ball, my nemeses from two nights ago would yell, “BUCKET” or “That’s Three!” and start running back to play defense before the ball even went in the goal.  And he was right.  I was on fire.  I still played the same level of defense and brought the intensity the whole night.  I’m thinking to myself; ‘Now that this guy had showed me respect, I couldn’t let him think he was wrong about me.’  He laid back and managed his game.  Scored when he felt like it which wasn’t much. He had fun watching me do my thing.  It was a night I’ll never forget.

The point of this entire story is this: Sports are often a reflection of life.  Sometimes it’s not about the Xs and O’s.  Its about NUTS!  Who’s got them, who doesn’t.  Playing basketball this way served as one measurement of my manhood.  Basketball in itself is just a game.  But it wasn’t about the game or whether I won or lost.  It was about testing my abilities and my will to overcome challenges and shortcomings.  It’s survival of the fittest.  Like rams butting heads or a pack of lions in a pit duking it out for respect and pissing all over to claim a piece of territory.  I’ve played lesser and greater players than myself over the years.  But my most satisfying victories came against guys that on paper I had no business being able to compete with.  For them, perhaps it was just another game.  For me, it showed me that I had what it takes to make it in the world.  That meant I could survive competition and adversity in the workplace.  That one day, I could be happy and live my dreams in life.  I too can be a winner!  I don’t think as men, we really know who we are and what we have within till we get into that den and see what we are made of.  My parents weren’t able to instill a winning attitude in me growing up.  Playing sports was partially how I gained that extra inner confidence.  I never saw myself owning my own business, but now I do.  And I am just getting started.

To have skill and expertise is great!  Education is priceless!  Connections are essential.  However, we can never underestimate the basic qualities of sheer effort, heart, desire, determination. There is a difference between winning and being a winner, losing and being a loser.

A man who won’t quit, cannot be stopped!  He’s just going to keep on coming till he get’s what he came for!

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Submit, Listen, Learn & Advance

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. – Hebrews 12:6

We live in society where people are often defensive when it comes to receiving correction. A common phrase folk tend to use when approached with feedback designed to reveal a personal or professional flaw is that the person giving the feedback is ‘hating.’ Their first reaction is to defend, place blame, deflect responsibility, or simply rise up against what may be helpful advice.  There is a common saying, “Only God can judge me.”  Often that’s psycho–babble for, “Don’t say nothing about my ignorant or destructive ways.”

Most of us don’t like being corrected. It’s in our nature.  That’s not always a negative depending on the context.

I remember working in a payroll position.  And for eleven years I made significant contributions day in and day out. My boss, a great man, occasionally questioned a project I worked on or corrected me in my processes. I would listen and adjust my practices when instructed, but there would often be an intense conversation along the way. He said he liked that I was that way because he knew that I really cared about doing a great job. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to be better, but I took pride in excellence.  The thought of not being perfect peeved me in the worst way. My motivation had merit. But the pride that drove me was at times my worst enemy.  I’ll get back to that.

Seldom does correction ‘feel’ good. But it’s a valuable tool that’s totally essential for growth. There are always opportunities to be critiqued because none of us are perfect.  Of course not all criticisms are valid. However, the way in which we handle critique say a lot about whether we are fit for promotion.

I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by a veteran official of over 35 years. He has worked multiple high school state title games in three sports. Obviously an older gentleman, his words are not always politically correct. His had a tough and disciplined upbringing by two stern parents in the segregated South. And his straight forward approach seldom has nuance.

I originally knew this man growing up as a teacher and sports official when I attended high school.  He officiated many of my own games.  I doubt that he remembered me.  The first time he saw me on the ball field as a young umpire, he eyed me from head to toe pointing out what was wrong with my uniform, and how I held my ball/strike/out indicator in the wrong hand.  He also tore into me for wearing a shiny watch (not good as it reflects in the sun) and on and on.  Inside I felt like, “Well damn dude, nice to see you again too.”

For some reason, I had the presence of mind not to let him see me sweat. Instead, I hung around and allowed him to make fun of me in front of the other guys. I shook my head in the affirmative, smiled and thanked him for helping me out. I bought a non reflective watch, and made every other adjustment per his instructions.

He kept in touch and hired me for a few high school games. Sometimes I got to work directly with him as his on the field partner. This was scary because I didn’t know how I would stack up or if I would meet his expectations. Needless to say, my trepidation was clairvoyant. At the end of each half inning he summoned me and asked me various question about what I was doing and why. I remember being on the bases and when a runner was tagged out I belted, “HE’S OUT AT THIRD!” I was told by the cagy veteran, “Us umpires are dumb! We only speak in one word terms. We say ‘out’, ‘safe,’ ‘ball,’ ‘strike.’ We don’t announce the game. You’re not Harry Carey!”

He gave it to me every time he had a chance. But I took it in and learned. I focused on not making the same mistakes over and over again. These lessons continued as we worked together more in the later months.  I began to improve.  As I got better he started giving me respect.  Instead of rhetoric exclusively geared towards instructions he started to speak casually, even making jokes.  Sometimes he’d even ask me about my personal life to get to know me better.

Last year this mentor of mine was inducted into the Illinois High School Activities Hall of Fame. My wife and I drove to the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to share in his honor with many of his family, friends, and fellow officials.

Now when we work together he still quizzes me sometimes.  He still gives instructions as he is always the educator. I am still a bit nervous, more so out of respect. I always learn something new when work together.  But I also noticed that he is proud of me. When we used to meet in the parking lot for pre-game he would tell me whether I was working the plate or the field. Now he asks me what my preferences are. One time he even said, “It’s my turn to work the plate Chris. I gotcha.” Now he looks at me like a partner not as a scrub.

You see the ‘drill sergeant’ has long retired from the sport. He’s received all of the accolades one can get from his profession as a teacher and official. But his motivation for me was to see me advance and be one of the people to carry the torch of my generation. He merely hangs around now to assign guys like me games and expose us to people and places because this business is very political. There was a time when Black American officials didn’t get much work if any from Caucasian assignors. It’s still that way in a lot of places. So his entire aim was never to demean or embarrass me. (Though at times I’m telling you he did.) He simply wants me to be the best at my craft.  I have to be on top of my game to succeed and reach my potential.  He told me recently, “I want you to be a state finals official.”

I love him for that.

Now, if I would have been a knuckle head and rebelled, ignored his advice, thought to myself the man is old, out of touch or hating, where would that leave me?

I’ve always been a mentor myself so I get it.  When I see a person who consistently refuse the counsel I offer, I’ll keep my knowledge to myself. When people cease talking to us about our flaws and we are allowed to flail about aimlessly thinking that we are performing well when in reality we are not, that is actually a judgment upon our lives. It’s saying in effect, “There is no hope for you.  I will not waste my time, or my breath trying to dress a pig with pearls.”

As I said before every criticism is not necessarily valid. But listening never hurt anyone. The best thing to do, even if you initially disagree is to consider and reflect on what has been said first.  If you find it to be true, take heed and make change. If it’s not, keep it moving.

Unfortunately, pride keeps us from even contemplating and thus prevents us from promotion to our next level. But that great evangelist and teacher Marcellus Wallace said it best, “Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit.”

MW

We’re All Selling Something!

“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.” – Glengarry Glen Ross

Most who know me well know that I am a sports official by profession. After 27 years in management, project management, payroll and some form of customer support, I’ve spent the last couple years building upon a career path that I embrace more for the love than the money. Currently I work within 4 different kinds of sports and that number is expanding. I work with adults, high school students and even small children.

Being in business for myself has brought me to realize some things. Like my friends and colleagues with the National Sales Network, St. Louis Chapter, my line of work includes selling. The product is me.

You see there are many sports officials out there. Every year there are a plethora of young men and women who venture into this business with different aspirations. Some do it for side income. Some want to stay active in the games they used to play. Some love being around the kids and helping them. Some take the craft of officiating quite seriously and want to be the best at it. Many want to go into the college and pro ranks. Some are what I call Official/Umpire/Referee mercenaries. Their sole motivation is to get as much money as possible; and that’s it.

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I have worked with all of these categories of officials. And from the beginning I plotted my own path step by step by understanding the basic principles of selling myself as a viable commodity among my customers.

The first step was in becoming qualified and certified by state standards. Currently I am certified in two states. Second is to learn the craft as well as possible by not only working as much as I could, but also reaching out and learning from other officials. As the saying goes, I’ve learned as much of what not to do as well as what to do.

Next I always show up on time unless I’ve arranged otherwise. Nothing aggravates athletic directors, coaches, players and parents more than some slacker holding up their games and treating them as if their event is not important.

There are many outstanding officials who are on in the marketplace. A major way that I’ve learned to shine and differentiate myself is to be engaging and show a lot of energy and enthusiasm while performing. I’m not afraid to smile or even joke when the tension get a little chippie. Everyone who sees me can recognize that I want to be there and am invested and involved in what’s going on. I hustle and get into position to make the right calls. I communicate with the players and the coaches. I answer questions with courtesy, though I am firm and not afraid to settle a conflict.

Most people can tell if their official is competent, engaged, and cares about what’s going on. The games we officiate are just games. They don’t save lives or change the world. But when I played it was important to me. Whatever the gender, age, or experience level the competitors deserves to have quality officials who gives them the chance to enjoy their sporting experience within the assigned set of rules and rules interpretation.

There are several officials related associations that I am a member of.  This makes for great networking opportunities.  No matter how good you are, you cannot make it without the help of others.  Through these organizations I benefit from the training and development they provide.  They in turn assign work to me all over the area.  However, most of my work and references have come through relationship building and word of mouth based on my performance, which includes my attitude.  My name is my brand. And when people think of me, my brand is what comes to mind as they decide who to hire for their sporting events.

These principles and skills are transferable to any line of business.  Remember we are all selling something every day.  Even in your personal life, when you go on a date, is that anything less than a  sales job?

No matter the product, your name, your brand, and your reputation is the first commodity people will consider first.

Umpire

Blue Strikes Back, or If My Whistle Could Talk

Real Talk:  I love what I do.  Sports’ officiating is not only a fun job, it’s an important job.  Whether the games are played by little kids, teenagers, or adult men/women, the officials play an important part in managing games that mean a lot to its participants.  They uphold the integrity of live competition. 

As a fan of sport, and a former participant as a youth and adult, I understand the fun, the passion and the intensity when competing.  Often part of the art and drama of sports is the give and take between players/coaches and officials.  Some try to bully officials.  Some are more cunning.  I welcome some give and take because it’s a part of the game.  I expect players to gripe a little in the heat of battle.  I expect coaches to try to ‘work’ me into giving them the next call to their advantage.  Games are as much psychological as they are physical.  You have to have thick skin in this business to be successful as a competitor or official.

 

Still, every once in a while I find it funny how some of the players and coaches I work with take the give and take a little too far.   Most good officials take a lot more than they give in the first place.  We can’t get caught up in too much conversation even as we try to respect dialogue.  There are times when the chatter I hear is ridiculous.  The verbal assaults can clearly get out of hand.

While doing men’s basketball game recently one team in particular whined and bitched throughout the entire contest.  Several comments were made not only questioning our abilities as referees, but also our character.  Two of their players ended up being tossed from the contest.  And even after the game they persisted to make excuses for the ass whoopin’ they just endured.

But what if the tables were turned?  What if there was actually equal access to criticize?

I posed this question to one the whining players who kept at us as my partner and I were changing to leave the gym.

“You know what?   I can do what you do.  But you can’t do what I do.  You’re not qualified to do my job.  But what if I in the course of the game could talk to you the way you talk to me.  What if I critiqued your every move on this court, your missed shots, turnovers, every time your man scored on you?  What if I walked up and down the court saying, ‘What a lousy pass that was?  Your defense is shit.  You can’t shoot so why do you continue to try?  Coach, your game plan sucks and you can’t coach worth a damn!  Hang it up!’  Believe me I see it every week!  It’s not like I don’t notice.  But you spend so much time critiquing my every call or no call.  He had no answer for that. 

I’m umpiring a youth fall baseball league in a well to do area.  Some of the kids on the teams are sons of St. Louis Cardinals, Rams or Blues players.  Some of them are pretty good while others not so.  Some of them are good kids who love to play the game.  Some think they are automatically following in their father’s athletic footsteps. 

 

Anyway, I’m behind the plate and this one kid has Albert Pujol’s stance down to the tee.  (Not Albert’s son) He’s posin’ it real good but refuses to swing unless the ball crosses the middle of the plate.  I’m calling corner strikes and he’s huffin’ and puffin’ openly showing off his disapproval.  Later towards the end of the game, one of his teammates ducks out of the way of a pitch on the inside corner of the plate like it’s a missile.  (STRIKE!)  He turns and shows his frustrations with some grunts and rumblings under his breath.  Then he barks, “Hey – where was that blue?”  My response,  “It was in the strike zone that’s where it was.  Besides that, you are up 17-2.  Swing the bat and stop ducking the ball like you’re scared.”  He struck out and that was that.  But what if I said what I really wanted  to say.  It would have been pretty much the same except I would have added.. ‘Smart ass lil fucka!  Now shut yo punk ass up before I take my belt off and whip ya right here at home plate!’ on the end of it.  Here he was 11 years old trying to ‘big time’ me in front of his teammates and the fans. 

Fortunately, for the most part I’m good at holding my tongue while managing the game professionally.  Every now and then I still lose my tempter.  I’m working on it.  But I bet for those kids/adults who act a fool, if officials can just have one contest where the talking was equal, they would choose their words much more carefully.

Black Youth In Baseball – Death of a Love Story

black-kid

I grew up loving the game of baseball.

This started with my father who used to take me to the St. Louis Cardinal games back in the 70s.  On summer evenings when he returned from work, we took the old Martin Luther King Bridge from East St. Louis and got cheap parking on the south side of the stadium.

Tickets were cheap too.  The bleacher seats were $2 and they went on sale 90 minutes prior to every home game.  (Trust me it ain’t like that anymore!)

We stood in line and got our spots in left or right field.  We’d get peanuts and watch the game while listening to Jack Buck broadcast it on KMOX radio.

Our company was great too.  Usually it was other older black men who loved baseball as well.  They would make jokes and have “old man talk.’ 

This always excited me as I sucked all of that up.  I loved my dad and enjoyed those old men as they told their stories and evaluated the players, the managers and the strategies.

My father’s favorite team was The Dodgers.  This was common for black men as the Dodgers was the team who signed Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.  There was a loyalty built-in the minority community because the Dodgers were the first to be inclusive and let us in.

I didn’t get it at that age of course.  I was routing for the Cardinals.  That is unless the Cincinnati Reds were in town.  I loved the Big Red Machine and can still name all of their players.

This prompted my love for the game of baseball.  I played it from an early age all the way through high school.  As a child I watched the weekly games on NBC.  And when I moved to South Bend, Indiana watched the Cubs and White Sox as much as I could.

Often I was the best player on my own teams and  I wanted to be in the big leagues.  I had some great teammates and competed against some awesome baseball players.

There were also plenty of black professional baseball players for me to admire too.  Its not like I didn’t love me some Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Johnny Bench.  I loved watching a lot of baseball players.  It wasn’t so much about the color.  The point was that without even knowing it I was able to see black men that I could aspire to be like while playing a game I loved.

My guys were cats like Reggie Smith, Lou Brock, Bake McBride , Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield .  My favorite baseball player of all time is probably Ricky Henderson.  He had everything.. speed, power, and a helluva lot of swagger!  This man played till the wheels fell off even if it meant playing for some semi-pro team after having a hall of fame major league career.

Nowadays there aren’t many black pro baseball players to look to.  It seems like the last great generation consisted of the Barry Bonds’, Frank Thomas’ Kirby Pucketts’, Andre Dawsons’ and Ken Griffey Jrs of the world.  That time is about up.  We have a few guys left like Tori Hunter and Milton Bradley.  But for the most part most minorities are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba.  There are many reasons for this and plenty of opinions out there to explain.  I won’t get into those.

But I will speak on something I noticed when I umpired a varsity baseball game the other day.

The game was between two predominately African-American teams.  One was a public high school and the other was  a private. 

I arrived at the game and wondered whether it was JV or not.  This was because the players were for the most part pretty small.  After speaking with some of them I found they were varsity players though the teams consisted of players who ranged from freshman to seniors.  Most of the players played for the JV and varsity teams because they didn’t have enough players to carry both programs.

The next thing I observed was that the quality of the baseball game was horrible.  The kids didn’t really know what they were doing out there.  Most of the baseball I umpire are either little league, teen tournaments or adult.  Those teams consist of mostly white players who seem to overall have a much better fundamental base than these older black players I saw.

During the game I talked to both coaches a bit.  They talked about the struggles they have with the fact that most of these kids don’t play summer ball and they are so far behind in terms of the fundamentals.  They are happy as I am that they are out there trying to learn the game.  But it’s very difficult at that age when you haven’t learned the basics.  When they play any team with any amount of training, an embarrassing loss is sure to come.

What I have heard for years on TV finally became a sobering reality to me.

The game of baseball… the game I love… the game I grew up with is not a game beloved by black boys and girls anymore.

Now it’s all about basketball and football.

There is no longer the infrastructure for little leagues within the black community.  The fields are run over and neglected.  It’s as if baseball doesn’t exist.

I can understand in a way.  I mean since the age of Jordan kids have wanted to be like Mike.  Not to mention one can be broke as a joke and as long as one guy has a basketball 10 guys can all play with it at once.

Baseball requires every kid to have his own glove.  There has to be at least enough bats to go around so a player can use one he believes he can succeed with.  It’s tough.  But it’s also very sad to me.

Baseball is a beautiful game.  An exciting game when played with skill and passion.  And for all the reasons that apply, I am sorry that our kids are not playing and enjoying this national pastime.

I always said when I stopped being a sports official the next step was to coach.  Initially I thought I would coach basketball because I have been around that game so much. 

I want to do something to bring the game back to the black community.

I have a lot of work to do however.  I attended an umpire’s meeting last night and learned that two local colleges with predominately black students are shutting down their baseball programs after this year.

Sigh..

Coming Soon To A Ballpark Near You…

ME!  I just learned that I passed my test and now I am officially certified to a baseball umpire!

And sure I know what I am getting myself into.  I can only imagine if people argue fouls and travels the way they do I know how it’s going to be with balls and strikes.  But I’ll deal with that later.

As for today…  in the imortal words of Rick James/Dave Chappell … “It’s a celebration bit*%!”