An improved version of this essay was recently (and kindly) published over at the Good Men Project. Click on that to see it over there. Go on, they’re nice.

Photo credits to Major League Baseball and Boston.Com

Winning in the Post-Season

I recently found myself thinking of the 2004 Red Sox because of a neighbor of mine who propositioned my wife.

I know, I know: when some dude totally hits on your girl, there’s a whole menu of traditional responses to pursue. I instead jumped to the dessert-cocktail section of the menu and went with: the Red Sox.

Some background. In 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years. It seems weird — especially now that they’ve won it twice since — to think that entire people came and went, born (say) in 1919 during prohibition before women could even vote, then living through the Great Depression, a World War, Elvis, the Kennedys, color TV, moon landings, Vietnam, disco, Reagan, M-TV, the Breakfast Club, America Online, Seinfeld, Al Qaeda, and BAM — flung from this mortal coil in 2003 with not one damn Red Sox championship in the whole bunch.

It’s not that I think of that season more than a few times a day everyday, but I have written about it before in an unusual context. Ten years ago this week, in fact, I was scheduled to give a presentation at work, back when my employer held these two-day off-site strategy events for the whole company. People could volunteer (or, in some cases, were volunteered) to participate in the many panel sessions which discussed our products and their markets, our technology and its role in the context of future trends, et cetera. Despite the banality inherent in the term “corporate strategy offsite”, these events were surprisingly meaningful because of three things: first, everyone in the whole company was invited and encouraged to participate regardless of pay-grade; second, no topic was officially off-limits; and third, the first night’s open-bar poker competition that went well into the wee hours. As anyone who knows me will tell you (including some wonderful, slightly-traumatized folk in the HR department), it’s hard to overstate how ridiculously I took advantage of the whole platform.

That particular year, with the previous night’s festivities still in consideration about how to best shock my biosystem, I took the opportunity to rant about competition. The panel I signed up for was probably discussing something corporate and objective, like how to best communicate the competitive advantages of our technology and products into a crowded market blah-blah-blah. But what I ranted about was slightly more confrontational; I was pissed off at a perspective I had recently heard expressed by someone in senior management: that a particularly interesting market segment was crowded and competitive and we were probably too late to participate.

Bullshit, I thought at the time. Crowded markets are often crowded for good reasons. Imagine walking through a farmer’s market one Sunday morning:

“What’s that over there?” you ask, pointing to a large, noisy crowd gathered around a particular vendor, the crowd waving handfuls of cash over their collective heads. Oh! And chanting; I’d like to think they’re chanting.

“It’s a crowd,” answers your shopping partner from senior management. “It’s exciting and noisy. Best to avoid it.” Wait, what?

Anyhow, that’s what I was ranting against that day, at that offsite. Few things buoy me more than standing in front of a captive audience of friends and co-workers, wielding a microphone attached to a decent public address system, with permission to “go ahead: be provocative”. And, did I mention the previous night’s cocktails not-yet-fully-withdrawn from my system? Really, people should know better.

So I started about the Red Sox. It was late September 2004, a few weeks prior to the World Series games, the first-round of the baseball post-season just wrapping up. The Red Sox had just successfully completed a best-of-five series with the L.A. Angels (whose team name, incidentally, decodes and translates to: “The The Angels Angels”), and they were waiting to see who would be their competition for the next round.

The two remaining American league teams were the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins. They were tied at two games apiece, so the winner of their next contest would win the best-of-five series and get to play against the Red Sox in the World Series. Now, I learned this growing up in Boston: one of the most important things to know about your favorite professional sports team is who their most hated rival is. No good team doesn’t have one; in fact, not having one is a sign that your team probably isn’t any good: does anyone bother to hate the Milwaukee Bucks? No, no one does.

But the Yankees. Dear God if ever there was a team to hate. It’s one of the most unifying aspects of the whole of the New England populace: six states, universal hatred of the Yankees. Ask someone from back there if New York is part of New England and you’ll hear a negatory shriek of angst that — I assure you — is fueled with a brief, horrifying thought of Bucky Dent.

So there we were in 2004, with the Yankees one game from elimination at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, while the Red Sox were safely awaiting the next round. So who would you expect Red Sox fans to be cheering for in that elimination game: the Yankees or Twins? That’s exactly what I asked my audience that afternoon, microphone in hand, at my corporate offsite. I kept my notes; here’s some of what I said while this snapshot of a then-recent Boston Herald newspaper displayed the answer in a PowerPoint slide behind me:

— — —

Image credit to the Boston Herald

The Red Sox nation embodies a spirit I worry we have begun to grow out of: a fearless appreciation of cut-throat, blood & guts competition. Competition for competition’s sake: I can beat you because I think my team is better. Every year – every. single. year. — the Red Sox faithful embrace their reckless, masochistic optimism in the face of overwhelming historical precedent. “This could be the year!,” they’ll say. Or rather “This might not be the year, but you’re going to have to whup us – again – just like last year — to prove it.”

The Red Sox cheering for the Yankees so that they have the opportunity to beat them on the way to World Series is a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”, what we used to call a “BHAG”. What are our BHAGs now? It can’t be anything industry-standard: I’ve seen leftovers in the cafeteria refrigerator that are more audacious than industry-standard products.

Yes, yes, I know: these industry-standard, mediocre technologies are what many of our customers want, and we have to respect that because they help pay our salaries. But don’t stare for one second longer than necessary into the abyss of mediocrity, because that abyss also stares into you. And I know that “supporting industry standards” is important, but most industry standard committees are populated with representatives from companies who don’t want the standard to move beyond their own engineering capabilities. There’s no greatness in standards: standards are middle-of-the-road solutions, and the only thing I know for sure about the middle of the road is that it’s a good place to find yellow lines and dead animals.*

———

Which of course, gets me back to the guy who propositioned my wife. No, I didn’t forget about him. First thing to know about him: he handled the whole opportunity really well. It started at a back-to-school event at the start of this school year. The mom and dad of my child’s classmate spent a few minutes chatting with my wife, and at the end of the conversation when the classmate’s mom wandered off, the dad stuck around, chatted her up, and eventually invited her out for coffee. Which isn’t unusual: our town’s coffee shops are the organic extension of Silicon Valley’s fleet of corporate conference rooms. Walk into almost any coffee shop in the 650 area code, and you’ll likely find an active, energetic meeting: anything from a neighborhood group planning a community event to some bright-eyed optimists crafting their series-A Powerpoints.

Oh, and first dates. So my wife meets the guy one morning, and he manages to be charming, conversational, interested and interesting for, like, two hours. Which is easy for my wife, a varsity conversationalist who genuinely finds people interesting. But as for the guy — honestly, I have to respect his temporal investment. But besides the eyebrow-raising two-hour duration, the whole interaction is friendly, platonic, and totally above-board. That is, until the very end of the conversation. As they’re saying goodbyes, he goes for it, asking my wife if she had an email address where he could send her something, quote, “for her eyes only”. When my wife talks to me about it later that Friday night, I’m of course waving red flags as energetically as a semaphore auctioneer: he’s about to send a dick-pic, right? But my wife is far more optimistic about the human condition than me: he’s European, she explains, and maybe they have a “whole family email policy” as a matter of culture. Sure, okay, that’s possible; if Eurorail is real, then “whole family email” addresses might be real too, right? We decided to bet on the outcome, and waited to see what showed up.

A few days later, my wife texted me while I was at work: “You win!” she wrote. Here’s the email she got after what’s-his-name spent the weekend working on it (yes, I know, he said “for her eyes only”, and I’m sharing it with you. But fuck him. I mean, you know, metaphorically.):

Re: For your eyes only

Hi there,

Hope you had a nice weekend! I was thinking a lot about you and was going back and forth about whether I should tell you about it or not. But I’ve learned the hard way over the years that it’s sometimes not healthy to keep everything inside yourself. So I’m going to share with you what happened last week and I will ask you to just let me know if it’s appropriate to talk about it at all or if you just want to delete this e-mail and we can hopefully still meet for coffee again and just talk about life, family, work, …

So this started [at the back-to-school event] and first I just thought how nice it is to talk to you after quite a while. But then, while talking, I somehow realized that it’s not only nice to talk to you but that it’s also very nice to see you (or should I say look at you …). And then you did some things (intentionally or not …) and suddenly I felt electricity in the air, not sure if you know what I mean and if you even felt it, too? So I couldn’t stop thinking about it during the week and was very happy that I got to see you again on Friday and it kind of continued there.

And when you shared some of your adventures in life with me I started wondering how adventurous you are and that I’m just curious to find out. So there it is and it seems like I’m not exactly sure what to do with it … I totally understand if you don’t want to reply, delete this e-mail and I’ll take that as an answer. But if you feel comfortable to reply I would be happy about it — if you don’t want to write we can also meet again and talk with the additional advantage that I would get to see you again …

In any case, this obviously shouldn’t have any impact on family and existing relationships, thanks for keeping this between us.

Okay, some thoughts. First: nice job! I can’t imagine writing a better letter to solicit someone to participate in an illicit cheat-fest on respective spouses. I mean, think about it, how would you ask someone to cheat on their spouse? I specifically enjoyed this part: “I started wondering how adventurous you are, and I’m curious to find out.” Excellent! It’s a perfect phrase: you didn’t really say anything, but you pretty much said everything: asking someone to be “adventurous” entices the recipient to behave just beyond their comfort zone. We could be talking holding hands in a darkened movie theater, or we could be talking ball-gags and anal-beads. Wonderful!

Secondly, I admire the audacity of the ending: “this obviously shouldn’t have any impact on family and existing relationships.” Obviously! Again the perfect word — just like that, the reader is committed to the conspiracy: I just want to roll around naked with you instead of the person I’m married to; I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m not a monster and, ahem, neither are you. We’re in this together. Obviously.

Lastly, I can’t help but appreciate the overall gentleness of the tone: “it’s not only nice to talk to you, but it’s also very nice to see you; you did some things and suddenly I felt electricity in the air; if you feel comfortable to reply I would be happy about it.” This is good stuff. He spent his weekend well, and I acknowledge the effort — if someone is genuinely attracted to my wife, he should invest the hours to write a nice email, to woo her, and not just to go all Anthony Weiner and text her “You up?” with appended junk-shot. That would be obnoxious; this was unpleasant, sure, but somehow almost charming at the same time.

And I think it was that effort which caused me to think of the 2004 Red Sox. See, I enjoy competition. I want to compete, and I want people to compete with me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that competing runs the risk of losing. But for as much as I want to win, I really do want another team on the field when I do. I guess my point is: while being overly-competitive about trivial crap can make you an unbearable asshole, I think being under-competitive is equally problematic, especially if you’re trying to accomplish something worthwhile. Say, for example, run a Fortune-500 company, or participate in a worthwhile relationship.

And this whole recent episode of that guy hitting on my wife really helped bring that into focus. Because while it would wreck me if she was ever unfaithful, I’m actually okay if she simply finds other human beings interesting and attractive. After all, many are. I don’t want her to be a fortress of immunity from the human condition. What I want — for both of us — is for her to be a fully-formed person fostering a whole, healthy spectrum of human-sexual motivations. Because what I cherish the most is that at the end-of-the-day every day, she chooses to be with me. That’s just awesome. I’m thrilled that she values the life of friendship and intimacy that we’ve built together, and that she derives a sense of self-respect and dignity from our construction. But at the same time, I don’t want her to make decisions about her life in deference to its structure, but rather from celebration of its contents. That’s life-bearing. That’s real.

And that’s it. Oh, and the Red Sox did kick the Yankees’ butt on the way to winning the World Series that year. It’s been ten years, and I’ve almost come to believe it really happened: I still have games Four and Seven saved on my TiVo, and every time I watch game Four, I’m convinced the Yankees might still find a way to throw out Dave Roberts and win it. It is the Yankees after all, the space-time continuum just doesn’t have their resources. But no, the Red Sox did indeed win it. And not only did they accomplish that in a manner unprecedented in baseball history, but their victory hinged on a foul ball that knocked out some teeth of an unfortunate fan who was not paying attention at exactly the wrong time. But that’s another story.

— — —

  • PS: It’s been pointed out to me that my “yellow lines and dead animals” line up there is an unattributed quote from Jim Hightower. Which has now been remedied. Seriously, though, that guy can hella-rock a quote, amirite?
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