business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

As a rabid fan of both baseball and metaphors, it’s easy for me to find constant lessons in the game I still consider the national pastime. And every now and again, someone agrees and the lessons become clearer still.

Doug Glanville, a long time professional baseball player, wrote a recent column for the New York Times that bears reading whether you love baseball or know nothing about the sport at all. Without offering a word about retailing or consumers, it explains everything you need to know about the current state of business.

Glanville’s article centers on what must be the single hardest act in sports: hitting a curveball. For those of you who know nothing about baseball, this is the essence of that statement. Few acts in sports are considered harder than hitting a baseball. The hitter has something like two-tenths of a second to locate the ball whizzing toward him, make a decision to swing his bat and manage to make the bat meet the ball.

As Glanville explains, that act becomes infinitely harder when the curveball is involved. Unlike a fastball, which travels very fast and straight, a breaking ball moves. The movement could be down or side to side. Of course, the hitter has no idea it is coming, which means you have to wait to see if, when and where it will break. (Or you could follow my example and dive on the ground and wait for the umpire to call you out. Did I mention that I hate curveballs?)

Not all curveballs are thrown in baseball. Glanville’s article also talks about life’s curveballs and the challenge of dealing with them. And in that statement, he provides the lesson facing us all in business these days.

In even the easiest times, success doesn’t come without a price. Fastball problems those coming at us straight and true—aren’t that easy to hit after all. We have to work at execution, strategy, hiring…and well everything. And you have to be really, really good to hit a fastball.

But 2008 seems like a time of curveballs. With the economy weakening and prices rising, suddenly everything has gotten trickier. Choices have to be made on how much of cost increases to pass on to consumers. Too little and you start losing money; too much and you might send them to a lower cost operator.

As Glanville explains, he learned to hit curveballs through hard work, even though his natural skills were strong enough to get him deep into professional baseball. Again the metaphor is clear: none of this will come easily. In a tough environment, only the best will succeed.

Not surprisingly, I love baseball movies too. My favorite scene in “A League of Their Own” doesn’t involve crying in baseball. Rather it’s when Tom Hanks and Geena Davis argue over her decision to leave the game because it got to be “too hard.” Hanks replies, “it’s supposed to be hard. It’s the hard that makes it great. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.”

Retail success is no different. What separates the best companies from the rest isn’t how well they perform in good times. After all, most everyone can hit a fastball. Rather, it’s what happens in tough times, when the obvious decisions aren’t so easy and the game suddenly becomes harder than ever.

That’s when skill needs the support of practice, creativity and new thinking. Otherwise, it could be strike three really quickly.

Batter up!

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@mnb.grocerywebsite.com .

KC's View: