Baseball, writing, and business

Three pillars of my life: Baseball, Writing, and Business. The order changes depending on what time of year it is and how well my team has played. But give me those three things and I’m happy.

Sports seem to bring out the best in writers: the scribes who churn out copy at an unconscionable pace for the web and print media; writers like Roger Angell and George Will (yes, that George Will) who have the luxury of writing more leisurely, long-form accounts; and the play-by-play announcers, who have to generate eloquence in real-time as they describe the game in progress.

And for real eloquence, listen to a ballgame on the radio. Those announcers don’t just to tell us about the action, they have to paint the entire picture—the fans in the stands, the sun in the outfielder’s eye. They create context, which Chip and Dan Heath note in their book Made to Stick is “the way to get people to care.” With all due respect to Roger Angell, George Will, and the hundreds of beat reporters, for my money the radio guys (as far as I know in baseball they’re all still guys) are the best writers in the game.

Bob Costas, himself quite a fine writer (check back here on Sunday with a box of Kleenex for my thoughts on his eulogy for St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial), notes that successful announcers need certain skills: “The command of the English language, the terrific sense of drama, the ability to tell a story.” The best have one or two of these, but the very best—and I’ll give it away now by noting that the Costas quote comes from a recent Sports Illustrated cover story, a Tom Verducci profile of Vin Scully—have all three: “[I]t’s as if you had a golfer who was the best off the tee, the best with the long irons, the best with the short irons, the best short game and the best putting game.” (I know nothing about golf, but I appreciate that some of you know nothing about baseball. Thanks for reading this far.)

Scully has been the radio voice of the Dodgers since 1950; he later added some television duties for the team. He’s also been the broadcaster of record for many World Series and other signature baseball events. (Disclaimer: My affection for the man has nothing much to do with his narration of the pivotal play when my Mets won the Series in 1986.)

But this isn’t just about baseball. I’ve already hinted at what Scully has to teach us about writing: Set the context to get people’s attention. He also has a thing or two to teach us about business. Verducci describes the secret of Scully’s success:

“He reached such an exalted position not by talking about himself, not by selling himself, or, in the smarmy terminology of today, by ‘branding’ himself, but by subjugating his ego. The game, the story, the moment, the shared experience….They all matter more.”

Let’s agree that branding doesn’t need to be “smarmy.” But the point resonates with me. As a longtime ghostwriter I’m very clear that it’s not about me and what I want to say—it’s about my clients and what they want to say. The story they want to tell, the experience they will share with their audience.

That’s not to say I don’t offer my opinion. If I think a client is making a mistake, I’ll weigh in. But in the end, I’ve always been clear that it’s their work, not mine.

I’m proud to know that my instincts match Scully’s ethos. He’s one of the best at what he does. Not a bad professional to emulate.

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