Lesson from a Little League Loss

On Sunday, I coached my son’s first Little League playoff game this season. And it was his last one too.

Our third-seeded Rockies lost 7-2 against the sixth-seeded Braves. Their starting pitcher had the game of his life, recording 11 strikeouts in four innings, and we didn’t have much success against their other pitchers either. So although we ended the regular season with the third-best record in the league, we were outplayed on Sunday and eliminated from the playoffs.

Many hours later, at 1:30 am local time, I arrived in Dallas where I was scheduled to speak at the TMSA Annual Conference later that morning. By the time I got ready for bed, it was after 2:00 am, and although my body was exhausted, my mind was still racing. I thought about the game.

What I love about Little League baseball, and sports in general, is that it provides valuable life and business lessons. Here’s a lesson from Sunday’s game that I shared with the conference attendees in my opening remarks:

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

“Just because we beat the Braves earlier this season doesn’t mean they can’t beat us today,” is what I told my team prior to the game. “We can’t take them or any team we play for granted.”

The same is true in business.

Earlier in my career, I worked at Motorola and Polaroid, two companies that were once industry leaders (in cell phones and instant photography, respectively), but are now irrelevant, eliminated from the playoffs too. Various factors contributed to their downfall, but dismissing the underdogs, as well as the new players in their industries, was a big part of it.

“Do you view Uber as a competitor?” I asked the 130+ transportation and logistics professionals at the TMSA conference. Only one hand went up. I then read them the following paragraph from the front page of this weekend’s Wall Street Journal business section:

Uber Technologies Inc.’s whopping valuation of $18.2 billion [a higher valuation than Hertz] is a bet by some of the world’s top investors that the car-hailing smartphone app can grow by expanding world-wide and branching into new areas, like logistics [emphasis mine].

In case you missed it, Uber launched UberRUSH back in April, a local-delivery service that enables users to arrange, using a mobile app, for messengers to pick up and deliver “any item that a normal human can carry [on foot or bike] weighing no more than 30 pounds” (see my comments at the time about the launch). Uber is already disrupting the taxi industry; will it disrupt the logistics industry too? I don’t know, but if you’re a logistics service provider, it would be foolish and dangerous to take Uber (and others like them) for granted.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Words of caution for companies at the top of the batting order, but also words of encouragement for companies further down, as the last inning of Sunday’s game taught me.

We loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, and Eli (not his real name) is in the batter’s box. But there’s a problem: Ben (not his real name) is supposed to be batting, not Eli. I call a timeout and run over to the bench where Ben is sitting.

“Ben, get your helmet on and hustle out there, you’re supposed to be up now,” I yell out to him, pointing to home plate.

“Coach, it’s okay, you can skip me. My arm is kinda hurting, so Eli can bat instead.”

“That’s not the way it works,” I say to him. “Get your helmet on, grab your bat, and get out there.”

I knew what was going on: it wasn’t his arm that was hurting, it was his confidence. Ben struck out almost every time he batted, and he didn’t want to strike out again, this time to end the game and the season. Before leaving the dugout, I pulled him aside. “Ben, look at me,” I said to him, and after he glanced at the batter’s box where the catcher and the umpire were waiting, he did. “Have fun out there, okay, and if a pitch looks good, don’t be afraid to swing, especially if you have two strikes on you. I don’t care if you strikeout or get a hit, I just want you to swing hard if a pitch looks good.”

Two quick swings, two quick strikes. But Ben battled on, and after fouling off a couple of pitches and taking a few more, he walked and we scored a run. After the game, I go up to Ben, who was already packing his bag. “Hey Ben, that was a great at bat,” I tell him. “You swung at all the right pitches, you laid off all the bad ones, and you won the battle. We wouldn’t have scored that run without you. Don’t ever be afraid to step in the batter’s box when it’s your turn to bat. You won’t always get a hit or a walk, but it’s better than sitting on the bench and watching somebody else make a difference when it could have been you.”

And that was my basic message to the TMSA conference attendees too. The competitive landscape in logistics today is like a single-elimination playoff game, with industry leaders facing young upstarts in a win-or-go-home battle. And the threats and opportunities in the industry today are broader than in the past, as the business models of technology companies, consulting firms, and service providers continue to converge. So don’t take the new players and underdogs for granted, and don’t be afraid to step in the batter’s box either. If you see a good pitch, keep your eye on the ball and swing hard, especially if you’re already behind on the count. It’s the only way to make a difference.