Charles Dickens Commenting on the Houston Astros

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair….

                                                  Charles Dickens

 Commenting on the Houston Astros in A Tale of Two Cities

DickensOk—Dickens wasn’t commenting on the Astros in this opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, but he might as well have been. Since the arrival of Roger Clemens—the Rocket and the best pitcher in baseball—Astros fans had been treated to something they’d heard about but never experienced—the sweet satisfaction of winning. And they liked that feeling. They liked winning their first playoff series in franchise history and they loved the club’s first trip to the World Series. But that wasn’t all. It was exciting playing to sellout crowds. There was deep satisfaction in having the team finally earn credibility and respect after so many disappointing seasons. Behind it all stood the Rocket. He was the man who transformed the team and who made the Astros major league. The 2006 season couldn’t come soon enough.

Then the unthinkable happened. Club owner Drayton McLane cut the Rocket loose by declining to offer him salary arbitration. That the decision came on the 17th anniversary of former Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan’s signing with the Texas Rangers wasn’t lost on fans. Previous owner John McMullen’s catastrophic loss of Ryan to free-agency is still lamented by the faithful. Now it seemed McLane was headed down the same wrong-headed path. The fans weren’t amused, the press was largely unsympathetic and McLane took a drubbing.

Putting aside the Byzantine nature of MLB contracts, this is really (with apologies to Dickens) a tale of two decisions. On the one hand there is much maligned Drayton McLane. The popular view is that McLane’s decision was all about money—or more accurately, spending the least amount possible to get the best possible result. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as the Astros are, after all, a business. On the other hand is the lamented Roger Clemens. You see, Clemens hasn’t decided if he wants to play baseball any more and if he does, how much he wants to get paid. Clemens’ decision was basically to defer his decision.

At the heart of it all, the two men have distinctly differing interests. McLane’s interest is about the business of the Astros franchise. The key to profitability is winning and that’s what he wants to do. The Rocket’s interest is personal. He has to determine what’s best for him and for his family at this stage of his career. He has to look beyond playing ball.

Leaders routinely face this dilemma. From contracting for goods and services to getting an employee to come to work on time, different parties may have different interests in the outcome. When those interests align, decisions come easily. When they don’t, someone won’t be happy. That’s why it’s important to know your interests. Be sure you know your bottom line—what you need to get out of any negotiation. Look for areas of compromise, but be careful not to barter away the things that are of vital interest to you or your organization. In the end, you can weather an unpopular decision if you’ve made it for the right reasons.

Sports theorists are already suggesting that Clemens will make his way back to the Astros by June. If so, it will only be because the interests of Clemens and McLane have finally aligned. While you’re waiting for it to happen, you might want to check your own alignment.   —Ebert

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