When All Else Fails…Words

I love el juego de beisbol. Just caught a game in Mexico, in fact. Go Broncos!

Unlike the other sports, baseball marches on. It’s more like life, that way. In the NFL, you play 16 games of about three hours. Everything gets decided in 48 hours of performance. Baseball offers far more data-points for decisions. Right now, I’m listening to the worst team in the franchise history of the Colorado Rockies. God bless you, Todd Helton. It’s flat-out awful, and it follows a pitiful, disappointing 2011 season. I’ve been griping about management throughout the past 16 months or so, but this last week, I felt different. For just a little bit.

Jim Tracy, the manager, had decided to go with a four-man rotation and limit the starter’s pitch count (75) in each game. This was a bold move (text duly noted). Everybody knows you use a five-man rotation, you have a “closer” to pitch the 9th inning, and a bunch of other pitchers to get you from the starter to the closer. Everybody has a duty: long-relief, middle relief, ace, fifth starter (read: about to be sent back to the minors). The list goes on.

I’ve never understood the roles given to pitchers. They’re pitchers. Throw strikes. Keep the ball low. Vary pitch speeds. Hit your mark. If you can do that for one inning, you’re a closer. If you can do it for seven, you’re a starter. Both are paid handsomely. One year, I saw Huston Street (a closer) blow two saves in the last inning of a playoff series. Had he been able to pitch well, they would have beaten the team that eventually won the World Series. He got nervous. We knew he would. Couldn’t he have pitched the first inning instead?

Picture this: It’s the late 1960s, and you’re managing an expansion franchise that lost 100-plus games in five of its first six years. It lost 95 games during the other year. You have nothing to lose. You change things up–radically. You move from a four-man rotation to a five-man rotation. First of its kind. Ridiculous.

A year later, they beat the Orioles to win it all. The World Series Champion New York Mets. Suddenly, a five-man rotation was all the rage. A manager can look like a genius by refusing to follow the script. He can also look silly. The quickest way to do this? Changing your mind on big ideas.

On Saturday, the third day of this new approach, a Rockies pitcher threw pretty well. They kept him in the game for over 90 pitches. He was slated to pitch Wednesday, but he was too tired to pitch on three days rest. The Rockies hadn’t named a pitcher for a game coming in two days. All for an extra 17 pitches in the searing Texas heat.

Turns out that Wednesday pitchers was Edwar Cabrerra, who joins a long list of 2012 Rockies I do not know. He was pitching pretty well…in Tulsa. That team plays two levels below the major leagues. After pitching less than three innings, the Washington Nationals had posted seven runs. He was told to see this as a positive experience and sent to Colorado Springs, which is only one level below the major leagues.

Josh Outman pitched Thursday instead. The Rockies gave him a 7-0 lead, which he gave right back to the Washington Nationals. He lasted just over three innings. That’s two failures for that one win. In the end, the pitching coach is now gone, for whatever reason.

Leadership is hard, just like baseball. It’s simple to understand, but it’s very difficult to do. Education follows this same path. I have watched education “fads” come and go until there was nothing left to believe. I still think Outcomes-Based Education would have worked, but it followed so many “initiatives” that were never completed. Faculty, staff, students, parents, the community–nobody believes school leaders following a new idea, anymore. If you have a brave new plan, you then have to execute the plan. Only then do we get to decide on genius quality.

Depending on how you spin it, No Child Left Behind is either the best or worst thing to happen to education. Despite all the “research-based” ideas and plans that have come from the money pits known as schools, kids still fail. Teachers still try to teach. Now, though, they leave more quickly. It’s not because of the students. Instead, it’s because of all the adults who are sure they know better…until they don’t…until they do again.

That’s how most schools actually fail. You can attribute socio-economic status to most failing schools. Still, unexpected failures are almost always accompanied by leaders with great ideas and the lack of will to bring those ideas to fruition. Big ideas could lead to big failures. We deserve to see the end result, though. In a typical process, a lot of people make a lot of money with new and newer ideas, while teachers and students roll their eyes. Everybody loses, just like they have been (and will be) in Denver, in baseball and education. Their big ideas, their political answers to educational problems, their rereredesigned schools (three links there)? Ugh, as in ugh-ly.

Meanwhile, their ground-breaking compensation plan continues to improve things for students and teachers. Of course, that plan is almost a decade old, now. The union threatened to strike over it once, and it required a hefty budget increase request from voters to start. Still, they stuck with it, and it seems to have produced positive results.

At this point, I’m more ready than ever for a new skipper at the helm of God’s team. This was a HUGE decision in the baseball world. It was brave…but only if it actually got done. If you can’t stay consistent on it for even a week, then it shows everyone you don’t believe your own words. Once others sense that, it’s over. The rest is just playing out the season…or the school year.

It’s a hard team to watch right now. Almost as hard as watching an inner-city magnet school or a failing charter school in rural Texas.

About Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.

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