Tag Archives: baseball

Baseball, football, and just the right choice of words

As we embark on the first baseball season in 68 years without Vin Scully behind the mic, thank goodness we still have this classic comedy bit from George Carlin.

carlin

Image source: georgecarlin.com

I have a writerly purpose in sharing it with you today. Carlin’s piece demonstrates how, by choosing just the right words, a writer creates a mood and a sophisticated set of images for the reader. In this case it’s actually 2 moods and 2 sets of images.

We see, for example, that football is played on a rigidly structured gridiron, and baseball is played on an elegant diamond.

Football comes across as weighty, even sinister (down) while baseball is light and airy (up).

Football delivers an abrupt kick and slaps us with a warning; baseball provides relief and freedom to stretch.

While I’d never discount Carlin’s deft delivery, I think it’s his pitch-perfect choice of words that makes this piece the classic that it is.

With your writerly sensitivities thus enriched, sit back and enjoy the work of a master comic and master wordsmith.


I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

BaseballBaseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs – what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups – who’s up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

footballIn football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog…
In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there’s not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

(Transcript source: Baseball Almanac. The original source, of course, is the inimitable George Carlin himself.)

Who do you pick for the project?

You joined the team a few months ago as its manager. Now a challenging new project is on the horizon, and you have to decide which team member gets the assignment. Who do you pick?

People in an officeRoy has been part of the team for years. The previous manager told you that he struggled in the past. But since you’ve been here, it’s as if a light went on: Roy’s work has been top-notch. Is Roy past his struggles and up to a challenging new assignment?

Bill goes through his workday with a swagger. He’ll tell you that he can handle anything you throw at him. And so far he has, although you haven’t asked him to do anything that was particularly hard. Is Bill just a braggart, or do you trust him to walk the talk?

Melanie’s work has always been good but not outstanding. A few months ago, when Melanie’s project encountered some unexpected bumps — not of her making — she surmounted the problems and delivered a great outcome. Was it a fluke, or is Melanie ready to rise to the occasion again?

Connie is the youngest member of the team, eager to learn and willing to do things in new ways. She’s already suggested some innovations that have paid off. Can Connie’s energy and new ideas overcome her lack of experience?

My take: don’t rely too much on the past, especially on things you’ve heard but haven’t observed firsthand. Instead, align your people’s current abilities with current and future needs.

Logo for Major League Baseball postseasonThe people in this story are fictitious, but I didn’t just make them up. They represent the personalities of the four teams that remain in this year’s major-league baseball playoffs: the Royals, Blue Jays, Mets, and Cubs, respectively.

When you watch baseball, or any sport, you learn that players and teams change and grow. As a manager you should acknowledge that growth: judge your people on who they are today rather than basing your expectations on who they used to be.

So….Who gets assigned to the new project? Why would you pick that person?

Who would I assign to the project? Ask me after the World Series.

With context, I can see a lot

I’m passing time in Terminal C at Newark Airport, and way across the concourse a baseball game is on TV. From this distance the screen is tiny — in fact I can see only about two-thirds of it — and I can’t hear anything.

Distant TV screen at the airport

There, in the middle arch, is my baseball game.

Yet I can enjoy the game, simply because it’s baseball — a game I’ve watched since I was a kid. Even though I don’t know the players or the score, I have plenty of context for this game I’m eavesdropping on.

Similarly, one of the best things we can do as technical writers is to supply our readers with information that fits the context in which they’re reading.

Peering at the tiny TV screen, I recognize the words on a player’s uniform: East Carolina. I heard on last night’s local news that East Carolina would play Houston today for the championship of a conference whose name I don’t remember. Sure enough, the other team’s uniforms are red. Must be Houston.

I don’t know any of the players on ECU or Houston. From my vantage point I can’t tell the inning or the score. I don’t even remember the name of their conference. Still, I can see a lot:

East Carolina’s pitcher is a lanky lefthander with a nice, smooth motion. I watch him freeze a batter with a good breaking pitch — not because I can see the ball, but because I see the batter’s reaction. Now the batter is headed back to the dugout walking the same dejected walk of every batter who strikes out, from Little League to the World Series.

Years of watching baseball have supplied me with context. It’s the same with the people who read our technical content. When the content fits their context, they can make sense even out of information that’s new and unfamiliar. But information that doesn’t fit their context isn’t even information. It’s just data, with no meaning at all.

How can we help our readers fit information into context?

Use familiar terms. If the reader knows something by a certain name, use that name. This is no time to break out your thesaurus. If the reader is accustomed to the metric system, for heaven’s sake use metric measurements.

Use diagrams and illustrations that are consistent with each other in appearance and content. If possible, use diagrams and illustrations that look like ones the reader is already familiar with.

Compare new concepts to things the reader knows. John McPhee, about whom I wrote recently, is a master of this.

As I finish writing this article, dear reader, I realize that it needs to fit into your context. You might not care about baseball, or about my ruminations on the game. So I go back and rewrite the introduction, so that right away you’ll see what the article is really about. How’d I do?

What else can we do to fit content to the context in which our readers consume it?

I could’ve observed a lot by watching him

He’s smart and gifted. Yet he’s best known for his oddball aphorisms.

He was one of the best baseball players in history. Yet people who know nothing about baseball, think they know all about him.

His is one of the most remarkable personal brands I know of.

Photo of Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra from a 1956 Baseball Digest cover

Today is Yogi Berra’s 90th birthday. I’m using a photo of him from about age 30 because, as he once said: “I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.”

I like Yogi for a lot of reasons.

First, we share a given name. Lawrence Berra got the “Yogi” nickname early in life when a baseball teammate, watching him sit cross-legged waiting for his turn to play, thought he resembled a Hindu yogi. I bet you thought he was named after the Yogi Bear cartoon character. It’s actually the other way around — a testament to how popular Yogi was during his playing career.

Second, I see something of myself in him. In school I was known as a brainy kid. To fit in with the more popular kids I “dumbed it down,” intentionally using poor diction or choosing the wrong word. After awhile I discovered that not only wasn’t I popular, I was proving myself untrustworthy by trying to be something I wasn’t.

To quote one of his aphorisms, I could’ve observed a lot by watching Yogi Berra. Continue reading

On greatness and elevating others

Doug Glanville, the baseball player turned author, described what it was like to play against the men who were recently elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Randy Johnson

What it looked like to bat against Randy Johnson [John Froschauer / Associated Press]

According to Glanville, playing against those great players — in particular, pitcher Randy Johnson — made him into a better player.

Glanville recalls a spring training game, very early in his career, when he hit a triple off Johnson. His confidence soared as a result: “at a young age,” he writes, “I had a tangible baseball result to go with my faith in my ability.”

He concludes by observing that “true greatness means more than a chain of personal bests. It also means bringing out the best in others — teammates and, maybe even more so, opponents.”

I never was an athlete. But I’ve long understood that I play my best when competing against opponents who are really good, no matter what the game: tennis, bowling, chess. I didn’t fully understood why, though, until I read Glanville’s article. Continue reading

Corporate culture: Finding your way

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Break out the Champagne! My favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, just clinched the championship of the American League East Division for the first time in 17 years.

This team is a pleasure to watch because it reminds me of the successful Oriole teams of my childhood. For those teams, the watchword was the Oriole Way. At a time when the phrase corporate culture probably hadn’t been invented, the Orioles had a corporate culture — and it was encapsulated in the Oriole Way.

The Oriole Way can simply be defined as playing baseball the right way. The classic Oriole teams were built on stout pitching and strong defense. But mostly, they rarely beat themselves by making mistakes. Continue reading

Career Tips from the Old Ballpark

This weekend marks the anniversary of the best baseball game I ever saw in person, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. It taught me some lessons about handling tough situations on the job.

Baseball card of Lenn SakataAfter rallying to tie the score in the ninth inning, the Orioles had no one left to play catcher. So in the top of the tenth, they put utility infielder Lenn Sakata into the game at catcher — a position he’d never before played in the major leagues.

That’s Lesson 1: Be flexible. You never know what need might arise. When it does arise, strap on the catcher’s gear and perform with as much grace as you can muster. Who knows? It might turn out OK. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that gave it your best shot.

Toronto Blue Jays’ batter Barry Bonnell reached first base and, no doubt thinking it would be easy to steal second with the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate, took a big lead. Pitcher Tippy Martinez picked him off.

The next batter, Dave Collins, walked. He took a big lead off first base, and Martinez picked him off too.

Then Willie Upshaw singled. As he took his lead off first base the fans began chanting “pick him off.”

Which brings us to Lesson 2: Don’t be overconfident. Having seen two of his teammates get picked off and hearing the crowd chanting, why did Upshaw wander so far off first base? He must’ve been thinking It can’t happen to me.

Baseball card of Tippy MartinezIt did happen to him.

A successful pickoff in baseball is fairly rare. Picking off three in one inning, as Martinez did, is extraordinary. And of course it’s a record that’ll never be broken.

In the bottom of the tenth, Sakata came to bat with two outs and two men on base. You can guess what happened. Sakata, who weighed 160 pounds soaking wet and who’d hit just one home run all season, hit a three-run homer to win the game.

I was already a baseball fan for life. That night, watching from the upper deck in Memorial Stadium, I became an Orioles fan for life.

And so Lesson 3: You never know who might be watching. The Orioles gained a fan that night. Your handling of a tough situation might gain you the respect and even the admiration of a client or colleague — which will pay off later on.

Use the comments area to tell me you might’ve learned from this story. Or just tell me about a good ballgame you’ve seen.

Originally published, with slightly different content, on the SDI blog, 24 August 2010

The heart and mind of technical communication

I’ve seen the future. I turned my calendar to today’s date, and there it was.

And when I saw the future, do you know what I realized?

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of Technical Communication had better learn structured authoring.

I invite you to look into the future too. Just observe what’s going on today. Here’s what you’ll see:

  • Content comes from all over the organization — and sometimes from customers and others as well. Gone are the days when all of the technical content came from the Tech Pubs department. With all of that collaboration going on, we need to have formats in which everyone can contribute content so that it’s easy to mash up together.
  • People read content on all kinds of devices: tablets, smartphones, desktop PCs. If the content can’t at least be adapted to the screens where it’s displayed, it’s of no use. The industry leaders are going beyond adaptive content: they provide content that’s responsive (it changes format to fit the screen) and smart. Smart content changes based on the readers’ attributes: the product features they’ve purchased, their geographical location, and their preferences.
  • Our employers demand content that affects the bottom line. One way to provide bottom-line value is through efficiency: content is developed once and then reused in many different contexts without the need for reformatting.

StructureNone of these scenarios would be possible without structured authoring. Structured authoring allows each piece of content to be tagged for a particular display format or for a particular user attribute, and it allows content to be reused.

Continue reading

Behold the mighty box score

Baseball box score For more than a century baseball fans have pored over these tables of names and numbers, from the sunny days of spring training ’til the chilly nights of the World Series.

I learned to read a box score even before I learned to ride a bike. More recently, I’ve seen that it has a lot to teach us about technical communication.

It’s context dependent. To most people the box score is a jumble of numbers and abbreviations. But to the initiated, who know the context, it conveys a wealth of information about how the game went and how each player performed.

It’s compact. This box score is about 10.5 x 4.0 cm (about 6.5 square inches) in my daily newspaper — about the size of a typical smartphone display.

It helps us chart the future of technical communication. Already, and increasingly over the next few years, we’ll see demand for technical content on smartphones, tablets, and devices that haven’t yet been invented. This content will need to be compact and adapted to the specific output formats. One way to meet this challenge will be to make the content highly context dependent, where the reader won’t need a lot of background or explanatory information. (Another way will be to use more graphics. Who knows? Perhaps the box scores of the future will have video clips embedded in them.)

What do you think? Does the future of technical communication look like a box score?

Originally published in the SDI blog, 30 September 2010

Leaders, influence, and the Hall of Fame

This is about two leaders who saw a situation, envisioned  a better way,  and through hard work and incredible determination made that better way a reality. I didn’t always approve of how they did it, but I have to respect and admire the results they achieved. Continue reading