Utility Players: Being the Ideal Teamplayer

(This is the sixth post in a series on wisdom from baseball co-written with Mark Stanifer.)

What makes a teamplayer ideal? Patrick Lencioni, writing about this in a 2016 book, may not have meant to highlight attributes that make up an established trend in baseball, but much of his content applies. That trend is the manufacturing, valuing, and usage of the Utility Player (a player who can play several positions competently, a sort of jack of all trades).

My Cardinals certainly are riding this trend with players like Matt CarpenterGreg Garcia, and Kolten Wong. They bring excitement to the clubhouse and the field with their versatility. But the player who has best modeled the worth of the Utility Player over the last decade is Ben Zobrist. Zobrist has been called the Father of Utility, and with good reason. He’s been at it most of his career, which includes playing for the last two World Series champions.

So what does Zobrist have, besides talent, that makes him the ideal teamplayer? What does a Utility Player possess that any teammate could possess, regardless of the team or their position, and be an ideal teammate? Here is a short list:

Hunger

Lencioni includes this as one of his three attributes of the ideal teamplayer. To be hungry means to want it more, to be self-motivated, to have what Bill Hybels calls a holy discontent. Hungry teammates want to be on the field, at the plate in the big moment, or dedicated to every workout and routine. They aren’t satisfied letting the rest of the team outdo them; they are passionate about carrying their weight and taking on more responsibility.

Flexibility

If you’re not careful, hunger can blind you. Hunger could lead you down the “it’s my way or the highway” path. To avoid that road, the ideal teamplayer values and pursues being flexible. If he’s not in the lineup every day, he trusts the coach. If he’s asked to move to another position for a short term to cover for an injured teammate, he trusts the decision. Hunger and flexibility must be present for the ideal teamplayer to maintain balance.

“Team First” Mentality

The Utility Player will fail with a “me first” mentality. Eventually, all teamplayers would. Building and maintaining a “team first” mentality is what the ideal teamplayer does. They show up on time, they meet deadlines, they squelch any temptation to complain, they even offer to give the rookie a shot at glory. The ideal teamplayer knows how to and works hard at staying off any ego trips.

So what about your life teams (family, work, community, ministry)? Maybe you aren’t the skilled Utility Player, but would your leader call you hungry? What’s your flexibility level? Who mostly comes in first in your thoughts, you or the team?

If God has placed you on that team as the Utility Player, how are you managing your perspective on your position? Your position on the team is what God designed for the team and for you. Stay hungry and flexible. Keep team first. Be ideal.

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How Good Are You at the Small Ball?

(This is the fifth in a series on wisdom from baseball. In this article, Mark Stanifer continues to mine his playing experience for insights into how to better play the game of life.)

Because it didn’t happen often, you would think I would remember every time it did. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. However, I do recall one time, in high school, pretty clearly. I knew I made good contact on the ball, but as usual I put my head down and just started running. It wasn’t until I was almost on second base that I realized the ball actually carried the fence for a home run. I was so surprised, I’m not sure I even slowed my pace by the time I crossed home plate.

Baseball today is a much different game than when I played. The players are bigger and stronger, the gear is better, and there are some dynamic home runs. Yet despite all that, I believe it is still the small ball — walks, singles, bunts, sacs — that wins games. When it comes to winning at life, there’s application as well. Here’s what I mean


Do the Little Things

During my time playing the game, one phrase was constant — do the little things. That meant being good with the fundamentals of the game, such as making good decisions with the ball, being ready for the play, or minimizing errors. In life there are fundamentals too. Here are a couple worth mentioning.

  • Discipline—To become good at something, whether a skill or attitude, it takes discipline. The skill or quality produced by discipline doesn’t usually happen through a home run. It is the consistent single or double which creates runs and ultimately produces wins. In your career, it may be consistent excellence in your performance. In physical health it is diet and exercise. Whatever the circumstance, discipline is a key contributor to the results you’re looking for.
  • Manufacture Runs—Small ball wins games because it creates and leverages opportunities. Take the lottery for example. There are certainly some big home runs for the winners, but just because there is a winner doesn’t mean it is a good investment strategy. To manufacture runs means to create your own opportunities rather than wait for the big one. It means that you’re looking at life proactively, rather than reactively. And it means you are able to see the potential in the singles and doubles, rather than focusing solely on the home run.
  • Play a Team Game—Home runs are a solo effort, whereas small ball is a team game. It requires you to know your role, which sometimes means sacrificing your at bat for the good of the team. Your team might be the organization you work for, your church, your family even. Regardless, the attitude of small ball is ‘what can I do to make the team better?’ It means that you’re willing to put others ahead of self, and to help when needed. It is recognizing that by contributing to the success of others, you also contribute to your own success.


It’s How You Play the Game

We all recognize the phrase “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts.” We may be tempted to quickly dismiss this as a Little League consolation statement. But what if it is true? What if what really counts is how you played the game? Statistics track wins and losses, but stats never tell the whole story. A loss can be a success—an improvement from the last game. And a win can be a failure—not playing to your full potential.

In his book Resisting Happiness, Matthew Kelly writes, “The world is always trying to seduce us with the extraordinary. The culture fills our hearts and minds with spectacular dreams about hitting home runs, but life is about getting up every day and hitting a single.”

Home runs certainly create memorable moments and grab attention. But in the end, playing small ball — doing the little things in the right way — presents the best chance for being successful over the long term. So, how’s your small ball game?

Sabbaticals: Not So Unnormal

I’ve had interesting dialogue with people about going on sabbatical this month. For the large part, it seems people have an idea what a sabbatical is for, but it appears foreign because they’ve never been on one themselves. 

This is my first legit one. I say that because two seasons in the past I pretty much gave myself a sabbatical by choosing to leave jobs without transitioning immediately into another one. No regrets. Both ended up being about six months long. (I should have lobbied for more than a month this time. JK)

If you just Google various angles inquiring about sabbaticals, you find this is more normal than not. And it should be. How it’s defined is going to vary, yet the value will remain. To read one recipient’s review, follow this link.

So as I post throughout this month, I encourage you to ponder what a sabbatical might look like and mean for you, your family, your company. Become more normal.

Obstacles: Sometimes You Have to be Your Own Generator

It’s been two weeks since Irma. Much continues to happen around the world with natural disasters. In our town, we haven’t had to deal with the devastation of other places. Regardless of how impactful the storm, one thing is true for anyone living in a post-storm world: things aren’t normal. Normal has been replaced, if not permanently, at least temporarily.

This was clear the first day I went for a run. It was Tuesday morning, not much longer than 24 hours post-storm.

As odd as it sounds, I literally had to tell myself that it was okay to go for a run. I’m sure to many it would have been the furtherest thing from their mind. To me, it was what I should do. It is my routine, and I should do it even if I didn’t want to or questioned if I should.

I did a 5.7-mile route through West Bradenton. A little darker than usual, even for early morning hours. Darkened street lights, humming generators, and impassable sidewalks were obstacles to my normal carefree run. Watching traffic on Cortez Road between 51st and 75th was interesting; actually on this entire route it was. Non-working traffic lights (5 out of 9) were catching many drivers offguard. They were having to pay more attention because routine was broken.

When routine is broken, when there are obstacles in life to doing what we are accustomed to doing, it can be quite jolting, to some life-altering. All of these things I noticed on my run were simple examples of obstacles that post-storm living presents. And if you allow them to, these obstacles can appear overwhelming and unnavigable. They can appear to be.

If the appearance grips us with fear, we would do well to step back and let our brains catch up to our emotions. Our brains can help us see…

  • …taking a shower by flashlight is doable.
  • …if you don’t know how to do something, most likely you know someone who does.
  • …a new routine will take more time…so leave earlier for work, allow more grace to other drivers, and expect the unexpected.
  • …the obstacle may not be addressable in the desired timeframe. That’s okay. Give time to yourself and to others to get it addressed in a safe and wise manner.
  • …obstacles don’t automatically mean you can’t do your thing.  They may just cause you to have to figure out a different way.
  • …like many pre-storm days, the best motivation is self-motivation. Sometimes you have to be your own generator.

Closers: Own Your Role

(This is the fourth in a series on wisdom from baseball co-written with Mark Stanifer.)

New York Yankees. A lot of people love them. A lot of people don’t. I live just south of Tampa.

Love them or not, their history of great players is remarkable. So much so that they have their own greatest players list that could rival all other teams combined. Google “Yankees Greatest Players,” and you’ll see.

In most of those lists, the name Mariano Rivera appears at least in the top ten, some even higher. Writer Anthony Maimone placed Rivera number six. Here’s part of his explanation:

“There is no question that Rivera is the greatest closer MLB has ever seen. The real debate is whether or not he is the greatest pitcher of all time. The fact that is even a question shows the extreme dominance Rivera has had on the competition stretching his 19-year career. There has never been a pitcher as dominant as he has been, and there may never be one again.”

If you pull up the Wikipedia article on baseball closers, guess whose photo illustrates the article. Of course he does. Why? He set the bar (652 career saves), the standard (served the role for 17 years), basically defined the role (precise control, smooth motion, composed demeanor). Others before him might disagree that Rivera is the greatest closer ever, so that brings up the question: what exactly makes a closer great?

The greatness begins with acknowledging what their job is. They are the relief pitcher called in to get the final outs in a close game when their team is leading. To be great, a closer has to be reliable, very business-like, and certainly able to handle big pressure. Tony La Russa, a manager considered a developer of the role of the closer, said this:

“It is important that relievers know their roles in the situations which they will be called into a game. Sure, games can get away from you in the seventh and eighth, but those last three outs in the ninth are the toughest. You want a guy who can handle that pressure. That, to me, is most important.”

They know their role. I would add, not only does a great closer know their role, they also own it. They are part of a pitching staff of roughly 15 pitchers. The starting rotation usually consists of four to five pitchers, so the rest of the staff are relievers. But the closer, everyone knows what his job is. That pitcher must know his role and own it.

Most likely, that player didn’t grow up through little league, high school, and college thinking he was going to be a closer. He probably dreamt of being the star pitcher, the horse, the leader. Whether by choice or force, he now finds himself in the closing role. And to be great, he has to own it.

When it comes to owning your role, one of the best instructional writings available is actually found in the book of 1 Corinthians. Paul writes about the body of Christ in chapter 12. Using the body analogy, he says we all have a designated role to play by being part of a body. So if you are the ear, you have to own being the ear; you can’t decide you won’t without the body becoming dysfunctional. Every part must know their role and own it if the body is to function as it should, to be in winning form.

  • You want to be great at work? Know your role on the work body and own it.
  • You want to be great at home? Know your role in the home body and own it.
  • You want to be great in the community? Know your role in the community body and own it.
  • You want to be great in God’s kingdom? Know your role in the kingdom and own it.

Mariano Rivera played for the same “body” his entire career. His owners knew they wanted him and would do what it took to keep him. As a result, he has ridiculous amount of records and is considered one of the greats of the most celebrated team in all of sports. This was made possible because he found his role, and he owned it.

Winning the Mental Game First

(This is the third in a series on wisdom from baseball. In this article, Mark Stanifer continues to mine his playing experience for insights into how to better play the game of life.)

As a boy growing up, baseball was my game of choice. I enjoyed the game and was naturally gifted with some physical talent. But I was not very good at playing the mental side of the game. It wasn’t until long after I hung up my cleats that I realized just how important the mental game is to success, and how weak I really was.

During my last year with the local American Legion team we hosted the State Championship tournament. We had played our way into the championship game, in front of the home crowd, and against our in-state rival. The winner would move on to the National Regionals. And the entire game came down to the bottom of the last inning. We were trailing by one, with two outs, and the tying run on third base. And I was on-deck and thinking, “I don’t want to bat!”

Doesn’t sound like a recipe for success does it? As it turns out, I never got the chance to be the hero of that game, but given my mental state — doubt, fear, lack of confidence — odds are that I would have made the third out myself.

With time and lots of life experience, I’ve come to realize just how much of the game of life is really mental. I have read numerous books this year on the power of our thoughts to shape our actions. What we tell ourselves, or absorb from others, is a significant contributor to our state of mind. Dr. Caroline Leaf, in Switch On Your Brain, says this, ‘What you are thinking … becomes a physical reality in your brain and body, which affects your optimal mental and physical health.”

I don’t often hear baseball used as a metaphor for life. But there is some rich insight to draw from this sport, especially in how we play the mental game.

Don’t focus on the negative

Baseball is not a game of perfection, especially when it comes to batting. Whether it is an errant throw, a missed opportunity, or a strikeout (more on this in an upcoming article), there are many opportunities to focus on what didn’t go right. And while reflecting on mistakes for lessons learned can be very valuable, dwelling there can be debilitating. The better approach is to own it, learn from it, and then move on.

Be in the moment

There is a lot of down time in baseball. An average MLB game lasts around 3hrs, but with less than 20 minutes of actual playing time. The rest is transition and preparation. Sometimes life can feel that way too — a lot of time invested in the “game of life” but in the end only a small amount really counts. It is important to be looking for those few precious moments and be ready when they come. Blocking out distractions, being prepared for when the ball comes to you, and being fully present, are good ways to help you stay in the moment

Be clear on the truth

It is hard for a professional player to ignore the critics. It is equally tough to ignore the critics in our own lives — both self and others. The best way I know how to do this is to continually remind yourself of what is true. The starting point for me is always “I am valuable simply because I am a child of God.” So much of our perceived worth is derived from accomplishments or accumulations, but these are not really our identity. Knowing who you are won’t eliminate the critics, but it will help lessen the potency of what they say.

Maybe you’re a huge fan of baseball or maybe the game isn’t your thing. Regardless, we are all involved in playing the mental game of life. And the winners of that game have figured out the importance of these insights. While I’m not fully there yet — maybe that’s not even possible — I am definitely a lot stronger now than that 18 year old back in the on-deck circle. And I like my chances this time around a whole lot more.

He Gets on Base

(This is the second in a series on wisdom from baseball co-written with Mark Stanifer.)

Moneyball. Seen it (released 2011)? Read it (published 2003)? If your answer is no, go ahead and hit pause on whatever you’re doing, including reading this post, and get that done.

Yes, it’s that good.

If you’re a baseball fan, it’s a no-brainer. If you’re a movie fan, it received six Oscar nominations. If you love one liners, there are a plethora. So pardon my repetition, but if you haven’t watched or read it, you must.

Besides the one liner “Who’s Fabio,” one of the more memorable lines is when Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) asks Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) repeatedly why the scouts should consider several players that they otherwise weren’t. The answer over and over again was, “He gets on base.”

Beane and Brand were referencing principles based on sabermetrics, something not widely done at that time across Major League Baseball. Although it had its beginnings in the middle 20th century, sabermetrics had not been embraced by traditionalists. Beane and Brand were challenging tradition.

They didn’t care how the batter got on base; they just knew that the only way to win was scoring runs, and you can’t score runs without getting on base. If the batter is willing to take a walk, he still gets on base. If the homerun king hits a single rather than a homerun, he still gets on base.

This sounds fairly simple. But as a guy who had a whomping one hit all season in the only little league season I ever played, I can attest that getting on base is not simple. It requires several things. Several of those things are applicable to life, to what it takes to be considered worthy of the scout’s attention. Here is a short list.

Patience

Swinging at every pitch will not get you on base. Waiting for the right pitch takes discipline. Discipline and patience are teammates. It takes discipline to learn how a pitcher thinks, understand the rhythms of the game, and commit to the strategy of the manager. And this learning, understanding, and committing will require patience. The hitter who can grow in their patience at the plate and get on base will also grow in their value to the team.

Sacrifice

Every at bat is not a heroic moment. Just because you have home run capabilities doesn’t mean every swing has to be for the fences. Sometimes your ego must be checked by being satisfied with a single that gets that player in scoring position across home plate. A valuable player pursues humility and gets on base however he can.

Focus

Monumental, game-changing at bats often happen in a game. The at bat becomes a mind game or a cat-and-mouse exchange. When a normal at bat of four or fives pitches moves into double digits, the batter takes the upper hand. Why? Because he has made the pitcher see his focus. This out is not going to be easy. The hitter who can stay focused, deal with whatever pitch is thrown, raises their chances of getting on base.

The player who illustrates this so well for my team (Go Cards!) this season is Tommy Pham. As of the writing of this post, Pham leads the team in six of the twelve batting categories. His story? He was drafted in 2006 but didn’t make his big league debut until 2014 at age 26. For eight years he was working on getting on base. When he was brought up, he didn’t immediately have success. But he kept working at getting on base. So much so that this year is his most successful year, by far. Not only does he lead his team in six categories, he also is among the highest in several categories in all of baseball; in one category he’s seventh. Want to take a guess at which one? OBP-On Base Percentage.

Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, “whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.” Heartily means “from the core of one’s being.” Whatever our position-dad, husband, employer, son, leader, follower-God has given it to us. All he asks of us is to do it well, mean business, you might say, get on base. Each time it’s your turn to pick up the bat, approach the plate prepared to get on base. Grow in patience, practice sacrifice, and harness focus so when you stand before God he can say, “Good job. You kept getting on base.”

Baseball Series

Recently, my friend Mark Stanifer invited me to join him in a blog series sharing thoughts about life through the lens of baseball.  Of course I said yes.

So this is going to be a nine-post series, you know, because there are nine innings in a game.  But I have to confess, I’m getting you into the game late.  Why?  Because two posts have already been published.

So for those who don’t like getting to the game late, bear with me.  Here is a link to “inning one” that Mark posted last week.  Tomorrow, I’ll post “inning two,” which was posted on Sunday.

Feel free to subscribe to Mark’s blog, and you’ll see these upon publication as Mark posts them each Sunday.  I will try to do better to keep you “in the game” a little better for the remaining seven innings.

Go Cardinals!

 

The Night Before

It’s after 8pm. So being an obedient Manatee County resident, I’m off the streets. Waiting.

Marathon runners know what this feels like. You’ve prepped all you can for your race. You’ve laid everything out for the next morning. The alarm is set; you know because you’ve checked it a gazillion times. You’ve stretched, or not. You’ve attached your race bib, or not. You’ve prepared your liquids, or not. You most certainly have eaten your last meal and properly hydrated. And now you wait. The long night has started; and if it’s your first 26.1, it will most likely feel like the longest night of your life.

You make yourself go to bed; and after about an hour of asking yourself ridiculous questions about tomorrow, you somehow fall asleep…only to wake up thinking the alarm didn’t work because surely the night is over, but the clock says it’s been less than two hours. If you’re lucky, you’ll repeat this cycle a couple of times. And each time you ask yourself another question before falling asleep, “Why can’t I stay asleep?”

And from my experience, here’s the answer-anticipation of the unknown. 

  • Can I make it the full distance?
  • What if it starts raining?
  • They say you hit a wall at mile 18. What does that feel like?
  • Did my training plan really prepare me?
  • How will I feel when it’s over?

These questions can go on and on. And they probably will until the race startgun sounds. And then, for the most part, after about mile two, they stop. You’re not normal if they don’t return at some point during the race, but you find a way to cross the finish line.

So here’s to the night before. You’ve done all you can. Followed your game plan. Put your trust in the right hands. Prayed for endurance to last all the way to the finish line. 

It will come. One way or another, it will come. 

But right now, it’s the night before. And you wait. 

Think about that finish line. It will come.

Fruity Fridays: Passing the Self-Control Test

(Final posting in this series about the Fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5)

(photo credit Amber Hatch FB page)

Nothing like a hurricane to test your self-control.

Publix test…check

Wawa test…check

I-75 test…still in progress

Saving the snacks…hasn’t even started

This very real storm brings to life how many situations in our lives make us feel in our minds and emotions. So Paul may have had some intention to placing this fruit at the end of the list. If the other fruits have been produced, this one should be easier to nurture. And we need it to pass the tests of life’s storms.

When I’ve not being doing well passing the self-control test, here are a few questions I review to check myself:

  • Where’s my sensitivity level? It’s entirely possible I’m making more of this situation than it is. Making more could mean I’m taking it too personally, I’m not paying attention to common sense, or I’m playing the “what if” game way too long.
  • What assumptions might I be making? Assumptions are usually the result of lacking communication (listening, clear explanations, waiting on someone else to take the first step, etc.). In these cases, I must review what has actually been said or not said and own my role in the communication failure.
  • What do I know? It’s my responsibility in my relationships to know who I am and who they are, what triggers I have and what triggers they have. That knowledge then should be the foundation for treating the relationship with the respect and the control it needs.
  • What boundaries are being violated? This question assumes boundaries are in place; if that’s not the case, then it’s time to set them. If they are in place, I must identify my violation and own up to it, both to myself and to the one I violated.

As we go through the next few days, let’s help each other pass the self-control test. 

*I want to thank the contributors to this series-Danny Bote, Jeremy Nixon, and Eric Vorhies. We started the series October 1, 2016. Alas, we’ve finished the task. Readers, thanks for sharing the journey with us.