Sunday, February 3, 2019

1977 Athletes

Tom Brady was born a couple months after me on August 3, 1977. He is 59 days younger than me. While he’s in the spotlight once again today, this post is about a different athlete born in 1977.

David Ross was born on March 19, 1977. He is 78 days older than me. A couple years ago he and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. With 108 years since their previous win, this was a long time in coming. Along the way, the team had fun with his age, and shared memories of what life was like in the 1980s, a decade I also remember.

I sampled a few books about the Cubs and their win, and Teammate by David Ross stood out. A lesser known part of David’s story is how he was cut from a different MLB team, and had a reputation as being a bad teammate. He determined to correct that, and Teammate is the story of his correction and the championship results he enjoyed from those efforts.

Ross lists the good attributes of being a teammate as Humility, Honesty, Reliability, Communication, Problem Solving, Sacrifice, Dealing with Change, Engagement, Being Positive, Accountability, Being Social, Toughness, Trust, and Fun.

As I read this book, I noticed some other attributes that are not described directly in that list.

First among these was needing your other teammates. By that I don’t mean the typical teammate idea of nobody-wins-alone, or the fact that teams and organizations can accomplish what an individual cannot accomplish alone, though true those things may be. Ross recounted several times where he needed his teammates to return his greetings when he showed up for the day. He needed his teammates locked in and engaged in his performance during the game.

The other big thing that was important for Ross being a good teammate that didn’t directly make his list was him knowing his role. Not knowing his role was one of his sources of frustration when he was labeled a bad teammate: “I was tired of being lied to and didn’t know what my role was with the team.” “I think one of the hardest things as a baseball player, at least for me, was not knowing my role.” Later Theo Epstein told him, “You can play a long time, but you profile best as a backup at this point and you have to accept that. And that means being a great teammate and doing whatever is necessary to help the team win.” Later Ross wrote, “I knew my role and made the decision to embrace it.” “I think my ability to understand and embrace my role—and to be the best at that role—is one of the single most important factors for my long-term success on and off the field.” “You can be a better player, a better teammate, a better person if you have a clear understanding of your role.”

Once he embraced his role that was both a good fit for him and important to the team, he was free to fulfill his place in that role and in the organization to the fullest.

Ross’ book is about “passing along all that I’ve learned from others on an important subject: how to make yourself valuable, even if you’re not the most valuable.”


A few of my highlights from Teammate:

I learned how I wanted to treat people—not only on my team, but in life. I learned the importance of accountability and being invested in every one of your teammates. I realized character could be as valuable as a home run, and my behavior and that attitude helped extend my career.

The more you get to know people, the better you can cope with issues that crop up along the way. That can come in handy in sports or in the workplace. When you know your teammates, you know how to talk to them.

My faith has also played in this process. I think when you have faith in God and a higher being, you are held accountable. It gives you that sense of I am accountable to somebody that is greater and it is a solid foundation when things go awry.

The cynic might say, well, it’s easy to be a great teammate—when you’re winning. I’d question that assumption. Is it easy to make sure everybody’s happy and pulling on the same end of the rope? Is it easy to step back from your own problems and do the work of a good teammate?

The best organizations I played for, like the Cubs, were places where everybody worked together and depended on one another. In those organizations, the coaches and front offices would ask for honest feedback from the players. There was a give-and-take, and it felt like everyone was on the same page, all working toward the common goal of winning. When everyone communicates, everyone is on the same page and pulling together.

[Atlanta Braves Manager] Bobby [Cox] knew everyone’s name. That really made an impression on me and it’s where I started to take the same approach of making sure I introduced myself and said hello to everyone within the organization. Bobby knew everyone, down to the ushers and the guys who were cleaning the seats. From the top of the organization all the way down to the bottom, Bobby treated everyone equally. And he always had a nice word to say to everyone.

On the best teams I played for, you could beat each other up in a good way. That allowed you to play freely. If I popped up, somebody the next day might say, “Nice job on that pop-up.” The mindset: everybody knows you are doing your best, so let’s make fun of the bad times.

What makes a good teammate? What actions can a teammate make to pull his fellow players together in good and bad times? Jason’s players-only speech, I believe, showed off a lot of the necessary qualities. It showed that, as teammates, we trusted Jason’s judgment. It showed that we communicated as a team and believed in each other. Everyone was focused on the ultimate goal.

To be a great teammate, a player has to have a good work ethic, he has to be durable, he has to be mentally tough, he has to have perseverance, and he has to have talent. It has to be a player who can lead a group, but also can take care of himself to make sure that his job gets done. It’s difficult to find a baseball player or a professional athlete in any sport who excels at all those things, which is why extraordinary teammates are so hard to find.

All those little moments throughout the season, the simple conversations, the team dinners, were intended to foster relationships that helped create a winning environment.

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