Choices

Preparation
Baseball

Michael Sandro was a young man in the early 1970s, if not in years, then certainly in ideas and energy. He spent many of his early years pursuing baseball success. But his career as a professional major league pitcher essentially ended one hot, dry, midwest September afternoon.

By the third inning, Michael had already thrown sixty hard pitches when it should have been thirty. As he delivered a high, inside fast ball just out of the strike zone he heard a snap, like a brown paper bag being popped. The sound was followed by a slow moving fire that began in his shoulder and traveled throughout the rest of his body. That afternoon Michael Sandro moved out of the dugout and onto the bleachers.

Six seasons later while delivering the high hard ones for UPS, he met 18-year-old Steve Gunderson in the mail room at Sears. Steve was not that big, just short of six feet and maybe 180 pounds. There was nothing special about his appearance except for his walk. It wasn’t a particular step or limp, or even a John Wayne swagger. It was liquid.

In a conversation one afternoon, more in order to avoid returning to an un-air-conditioned truck than a real need for intelligent exchange, Michael learned that Steve liked “throwing” baseballs.

The next day, Michael questioned Steve about his “throwing.” Steve told him that when he was six he discovered a discarded drum filled with very old, very brown baseballs in 18 inches of collected rainwater. The drum was under a pile of broken down bleachers that were part of a field which had been used by the old Negro baseball league. Some of the baseballs were so water-logged that they flattened like balls of wet string, which is what they had become.

After two or three weeks of drying out on Steve’s back porch railing, most of them were almost as hard as new. As an only child growing up in farm country, kids, much less friends, were scarce. So Steve fell into a routine of school, chores and throwing. Since there was no one to throw the balls back once he threw them, he put an old wheelbarrow up against their galvanized storage shed where Steve’s father kept everything he wanted to keep that should have been thrown away. The balls would hit the shed and drop into the wheelbarrow. When it was full, Steve would move the wheelbarrow to where he was just throwing, dump the balls and replace the wheelbarrow.

While Steve liked the throwing part, what he really liked were the sounds. First the woosh of the ball in the air, then a thunk of the galvanized wall, followed almost immediately by a metallic echo from inside the shed, to the clunk rattle of the ball in the wheelbarrow. Woosh, thunk, clunk, rattle, over and over again. This was how Steve spent his summers. Woosh-thunk-clunk-rattle, woosh-thunk-clunk-rattle. To make things more interesting he would speed up or slow down the process: woooosh, thhunkk, cllunnk, rattttle. Sometimes he would move closer to the shed, sometimes farther away to vary the sound. Summer followed summer and years followed years. After a while, it wasn’t just the summers, but every day it didn’t rain, sometimes even when it did. By the time he was sixteen and almost fully grown, he wasn’t throwing baseballs. He was making music.

On his next delivery to Sears, Steve ran out to the truck with a ball and two gloves, insisting that he and Mike have a game of catch. The idea of Steve getting to toss the ball around with a former major leaguer, no matter how brief the career, was too much for him to resist.

Michael agreed; it made him feel special again. He reared back and steamed one into the kid's glove. To his surprise and disappointment, it didn’t seem to bother him at all.

Steve’s return pitch took hold of Michael’s glove with a snap. The snap was the sound of two bones in Michael’s hand breaking.

This wasn’t fast. He had a step up on fast. Even in Michael’s intense pain he knew that this was not an ordinary young man with a normal talent. He was a natural.

That evening at the emergency room Michael called a baseball scout at his old team, the same man who helped him get his tryout in the “show.” He told Sid about Michael’s fast ball and exactly where and how many bones were broken. Sid was on a plane that evening.

This could be a story with a very happy ending. It could, but it’s not. Steve could throw all right, fast and straight. The ball would go where he wanted it to fast, very fast. The scout and the next two professional major league catchers who tried to catch his fast ball also broke bones in their hands.

Okay, so he throws a little slower... no dice. The slower he threw the less control he had. Only when he gave it everything could he control the ball’s flight. If there had been a way to make a career out of this boy’s talents, the money people in baseball would have found it.

Most communication turns on the same premise. If your message cannot be prepared in a way people can perceive it, it doesn’t make a difference how clever or creative it is. If the message is not understood and appreciated by its primary audience, it’s just so much wind whistling by.

Great products can usually overcome a lackluster presentation. The Walkman would have succeeded had it been sold on street corners. But why take that chance? In this competitive environment, most new products and companies need to be prepared, packaged and presented in ways that focus attention on the qualities they represent and the benefits to the customer.

It is naïve to assume that superior products and services will prosper without an aggressive, intelligent communication and awareness program that helps their potential customers recognize and appreciate the virtues and values inherent in their assets.

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