Batter Up — Bottom of the Tenth
My White House Suit Pants & Face-Plant Field
This is the final story for this series — I promise! It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t told this one here, yet. This story should definitely be a part of this, and honestly, I couldn’t think of a better one to be the closer.
When I was playing competitive adult softball, which I did throughout my 50’s, we used to play doubleheaders on weekday evenings, with the first game starting at either 6:30 or at 8:30. My friend Roger and I used to car-pool to the games together to save on gas and pollution. On this particular night, we had the early games. Roger was meeting me at the Vienna Metro, where my car was parked. I took the Metro to Vienna from work in DC, and headed to my van, where I planned to change into my softball uniform and get my gear together for the game. Roger was going to be driving this night.
My van was parked right beside the bus stop. A lady was standing right there waiting for the bus, so I wasn’t comfortable changing into my softball pants. I figured I’ll bring them with me and change in the rest rooms at the ball park.
I was wearing my brand new blue pin-striped suit, which Kathy had insisted on buying when I’d spoken at a White House event a few weeks before. It was a $1200 suit, though we had gotten it for much less than that, as she had found a great deal on suits at the Men’s Wearhouse. We essentially got 6 suits for the price of this one, but this one was the nicest and most expensive of them all. It was a fine suit, the finest I’ve ever owned, and the one that I actually wore to the White House event.
Speaking at the White House was not a normal thing, for me. That was a one-and-done, once in a lifetime opportunity. When I’d gone through the Federal Executive Institute’s executive training, “Leadership for a Democratic Society”, the previous year, one of the deliverables was to develop a leadership challenge for your agency. The criteria for the challenge was, it had to be something that could take 3–7 years to complete, with no more than a 50% chance of success. In other words, they wanted you to set a very high bar for yourself and your agency in the challenge you came up with. I took it seriously, and set my bar pretty damned high.
I’d gone through the training program in September, 2008, when there was a bill before congress to form a single food safety agency. The idea in the bill was to take my agency, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects and regulates the production of all meat, poultry and egg products in the U.S., and the food parts of FDA, the Food & Drug Administration, as well as the parts of CDC that dealt with food issues (primarily outbreaks, but several other food-related issues) and a few other smaller agencies that had a stake in food safety, and put us all into one agency. At the time, we were still feeling the adverse effects of the formulation of the Department of Homeland Security from a variety of different government agencies. I did not think subjecting something as critical as safe food to the same governmental dysfunction as DHS had proven to be, was a wise move for the government, though there were strong arguments in the bill for doing so.
In my challenge, I proposed forming a virtual single food safety administration out of all these components, leaving them all where they were in their respective agencies, while removing many of the current barriers that kept them from doing a better job working together, and finding innovative virtual ways to better align resources among these players in food safety.
Upon my return from the institute that fall, as I got back into the day to day business of my job, I started to believe I had shot far too high in my challenge. I could never have sufficient influence over something as large as this, given the fact that I was only a GS-15 director, one of 9 such directors in my program area which was one of 8 program areas in my agency, which was one of 17 agencies in the USDA, which was one of 17 government departments of its size. You get the idea. My challenge would impact not only my agency and the department, but several other agencies in the government. Who the heck was I to have any chance in having an impact of this scope and scale?
Several months later, events began to unwind that put me in just such a position. I was approached by the agency’s Chief Financial Officer to see if I would be interested in coming to the CFO office on a detail as his Deputy CFO. I really didn’t want to do that, but knew it would be a good move for my career. So I did it. Within 2 months, I was then moved right into the CFO job, itself. In this capacity, I was part of the agency’s executive Management Council, which met weekly to discuss agency business.
At my first Management Council meeting in this new capacity, the second-in-command of the agency, a guy named Bryce, spoke about a new initiative of the incoming Obama administration called a National Food Safety System. It sounded remarkably like my proposed agency challenge. They were looking for members of the council to get involved in it, so I went up to Bryce after the meeting and told him about my challenge. He immediately assigned me to the Food Safety Working Group, which was the White House initiative.
The head of the group put me in charge of one of the 5 principles they were fleshing out for a detailed paper they were tasked with delivering to the White House on this proposal of a national food safety system. My principle was effectively aligning our resources. I had to work with representatives from FDA and CDC to develop the language for the paper on our principle. I was the only one proposing any language at all. The others just liked to shoot holes in my proposed language, but would not come up with any alternative language. It was a maddening process, but I eventually came up with the language that we all agreed on. I got my part done! I was so relieved! But, the best was yet to come.
We soon learned that, in addition to delivering this paper to the White House, there was going to be a big roll-out of this new initiative at a big White House event, with esteemed speakers from congress, the White House, and our team, followed by a listening session, with all of the constituents and stakeholders of food safety, the industry and the consumer groups, and members of congress, as well as state and local level stakeholders. All the heavies in the business of food safety were going to be there.
When I found out that the whole team was being invited to this event, Kathy got me up to Men’s Wearhouse to get the suits. On the night before the event, we were back up there picking up the tailored suits. Bryce called me — it was about 8:00 in the evening — and said, “Pete, I want you to speak at tomorrow’s event.” I was at a loss for words for a minute, then said, “Okay…what do you want me to talk about?” “I want you to talk about the principle that you championed in the paper.” Okay. I can do that. “Do I have to write it up ahead of time?” “Of course!” Does it have to get cleared by anyone? “Of course! First, I have to clear it for the agency, then get it cleared by the White House.” Does this have to happen tonight? “Of course!”
Kathy could see by the look on my face that something was going on. “Do you have to go? I can handle things here if you do.” We’d met there in separate cars, and I’d already tried the suit on and it fit. “Thanks!” and off I went to write up my White House speech for the next morning. It took until just before midnight to get it all written up and cleared by Bryce and the White House, but I got it done.
The next day, we were meeting in Bryce’s office to go over to the White House together. “Nice suit, Pete! Listen, you’re going to be the last speaker before we break up into the different listening sessions, so you really need to nail your talk to set the tone for that. You’re our clean-up hitter…no pressure!” Speaking before me were the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, 4 U.S. Senators, 3 House Representatives, and 4 others from the Food Safety Working Group. Then me — I was batting clean-up!
I was nervous as a jack-rabbit, but all the work I had done at the institute developing my challenge had prepared me for just such a moment as this. My challenge! It was only just then that it fully hit me — this is my challenge that I’m going to be speaking at the White House about! Holy cow! Three short months ago, I was convinced that I could never have an impact on something like this, and here I was, about to deliver a speech at the White House about my challenge, with all of the key players in one room — and I was the clean-up hitter, to boot!
Well, I apparently knocked it out of the park — Grand Slam! I wouldn’t know, because I was so nervous, I just stayed focused on doing all the things I had learned to do to remain focused and to be interesting in my delivery. I had learned to deliver it like I was telling a story, so that’s what I did. Bryce said afterwards, “You really nailed it, Pete — great job!”
Back at work, I became something of a mini-celebrity for a couple weeks. “Hey, Pete spoke at the White House, and Bryce said he really nailed it!” It was all very heady stuff for someone like me. I needed something to bring me back down to earth, fast, before it really went to my head. I know me. I didn’t need a swollen ego egging me on to do something really stupid I would later regret.
Which brings me right back to the ballpark. Roger and I arrived at the park about a half-hour before game time. We weren’t even sure if the game would be played, as it began to rain. I got my bag out of his trunk and headed for the men’s room to change into my softball pants. When I got there, I suddenly realized — I forgot to throw my pants in my bag! Oh, no! There would not be time to back to the Metro to get them. That was 20 minutes away.
I had two hopes — one, enough players showed up that I wouldn’t have to play. That didn’t happen. My second hope was that the rain would cause the game to be postponed. While the rain never let up, it was late in the season, and they had already postponed too many games. They were instructed to get these games in, come hell or high water. The high water came, but the games went on.
It was real messy affair. I announced from the start that I would not be doing any sliding. My hope was to minimize the amount of mud and wear and tear on my brand new White House suit pants. I did okay for the first couple innings, but the rains kept falling, and puddles began to form around the field.
I came up to bat in the third inning, and hit a hard groundball to the shortstop. I was running hard down to first base, but it was going to be a bang-bang play. Me and the ball were honing in on the first baseman at the same time. In this league, there were two bags at first base, one for the fielder and one for the runner, to avoid collisions on bang-bang plays like this. So, I wasn’t worried about a collision, just running as fast as I could to beat the ball there. As the first baseman caught the ball, his foot slipped across his base, which was all wet, and slid right over to the middle of my base. Me running full speed got tripped up by his foot being in the middle of my base, so I went sprawling, head first, about fifteen feet down the line into a big old mud puddle, where I face planted right into the mud.
When the umpire called me out, a sprung up out of that mud-pit and nearly lost my shit, as there was no way I was out. My players had to restrain me from going after him, as we couldn’t afford to lose a player, as we were already short one player. My blue pin-striped pants were now completely brown, caked with mud and likely ruined.
I played the rest of the game with a reckless abandon, diving after a ball in right field, adding grass stains to the caked mud. The next day, I dropped them off at the cleaner, in a plastic trash bag, with a sheepish shrug of the shoulders, saying, “Just do the best you can with these.” When I picked them up a couple days later, they were good as new. No tears, no stains, they looked just the way they had when I’d bought them — three weeks before! It was a dry-cleaning miracle! I never mentioned it to Kathy until about a year later. I just couldn’t. I’d already dodged one bullet — I didn’t know if I would survive that one!
From that day forward, that field became forever known by my team as Face-Plant Field. I would never forgive that umpire for calling me out for the rest of my softball playing days. I guess I eventually did, but it took a long time. The one thing it did do for me, though, was — it brought me, and my white house suit pants, back down to earth. I had no ego issues about speaking at the White House after I planted my face, and my pants, smack into that big old mud puddle on Face Plant Field! That was definitely a grounding experience!
And that concludes this extra-inning game, so remember to — Play Ball!