An Interview with Rick Morrissey

Rick Morrissey, columnist at  The Chicago Sun-Times and author of  "Ozzie's School of Management"
Rick Morrissey, columnist at The Chicago Sun-Times and author of
“Ozzie’s School of Management”

Not only is Rick Morrissey an award-winning columnist who has been covering the Chicago sports world since 2000 – first at the Tribune and more recently at the Sun-Times – but he grew up in nearby Oak Brook and went to college at Northwestern. That gives him a unique perspective on how sport functions in the Windy City – as a fan, as a reporter and as a local. It also meant that when he approached Ozzie Guillen, at the time the fiery manager of the White Sox, about writing a book that applied Ozzie’s unusual – some would say crazy – managing techniques to life outside the stadium, he was well-prepared for the roller coaster ride to follow. Or at least, he thought he was. Mr. Morrissey sat down with us in the Summer of 2013 to expand on what “Ozzie’s Book of Management” (which we reviewed here) taught him, and what it can teach all of us.

what happened?

Agency Review:

For starters, as a fan I have to ask, what the hell happened to Ozzie? A few short years ago he was everybody’s darling, doing commercials with Lou Pinella and commentary during the World Series – and it seems like his name had been thrown around for the Miami job for years. Then he gets the gig and everyone’s all excited and within minutes – boom! – it all blows up. So what happened? Was it hubris (and on whose part?), was it the peter principal, was it the wrong team at the wrong time (and if he’d gone a few years earlier when the rumours first started it would have gone much better), or was it just a matter of getting his bluff called and really, he never had any real intention of going to Miami?

Morrissey:

Tell me about it. In a nutshell, you have described what happened to the book. Even as I was doing the reporting for “Ozzie’s School of Management,’’ an Ozzie fatigue had settled over Chicago. Fans (and non-fans) had grown weary of the drama between the manager and Kenny Williams, the general manager. There had been tension between the two for years, and what had been an interesting dynamic – how do they do their jobs in that climate? – wasn’t so interesting anymore. So by the end of the season, it was time for a change. Where all of his chatter had been seen as fun and refreshing, now it was old and grating. I didn’t feel that way, but many White Sox fans did.

He would have preferred to stay in Chicago. And he could have, for the following season, with a year left on his contract. But Miami was offering a four-year, $10 million contract. So he bolted. Looked like the right move for all involved. But it was a disaster almost from the beginning. He put his foot in his mouth with his comments about Fidel Castro – real smart in the Cuban capital of the U.S. – but the Marlins acted shocked that Ozzie had opinions. Had they not done their homework? Wrong question. It didn’t even involve homework. Had they not seen Ozzie getting thrown out of games on ESPN, doing postseason broadcast work, being quoted saying all sorts of outrageous things? When it turned out the Marlins sucked, the spineless owner started selling off parts and Ozzie was doomed. In the book business, I believe you call that “bad luck.’’

Agency Review:

Or said another way, “D: All of the above.”

So let me turn the question a little bit – what can we as readers of “Ozzie’s School of Management” learn from this debacle that’s applicable to the business world? Maybe “Don’t only follow the money”? Or “Do your homework”? Or even “Shut up about Fidel in South Beach?”. And was there anything that you learned from it (other than sometimes in publishing there’s just as much bad luck as in baseball)? And what about Ozzie? Other than a fat check, what do you think he got out of the experience?

Morrissey

I’m not sure what the lesson would be, because I thought he made the right move. He needed a fresh start, and he needed to go somewhere he was wanted. The Marlins had promised to spend a lot of money on player payroll, and they did. It should have worked out. I think Ozzie thought with his personality, he could work with the owner, even though Loria’s entire history suggested no one could work with him.

I learned this a long time ago as a golf caddie as a kid: You learn how to treat people not just by watching the nice adults but by watching how the jerks act. For Ozzie, maybe the learning experience was something sort of like that — he needs to be more careful in choosing the people he works with next. Being wanted for a job is intoxicating, and I think he thought he could rise above ownership. He couldn’t. But he’s not going to stop saying crazy things, even though you might think that might be one of the lessons. It’s not possible for him, and I think for the most part we’re all better off because of it.

ozzie’s lessons

Agency Review:

You and Ozzie are pretty clear, I think, about the simple guidelines for his management style – get between the players and everyone else who can distract them so they can focus on playing and winning because, as he points out, managers don’t win games, players win games. The challenge with that strategy, however, is there’s precious little visible difference between a manager dedicated to strategically protecting his players, and one who’s just a spotlight hog who really doesn’t know what’s going on on the ballfield. Or said another way, a lot of lousy managers can employ Ozzie’s style with really disastrous results. So first, do you think that’s a fair characterization of Ozzie’s style, second, do you think, therefore, it’s really only a strategy that makes sense for Ozzie, and third, if not, who else do you think employs it – or perhaps should employ it?

Morrissey:

Somewhere in the book, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko says that there are very few strategic decisions in baseball that aren’t obvious if you’ve played the game a long time. In other words, when you have years of experience and you have some statistical information at your fingertips, when it’s decision time, you should know what to do. That’s not to take away from the “geniuses’’ in the game who pride themselves on their decisions. But I think it brings the discussion back down to earth. I happen to think Ozzie’s right: The biggest part of managing is dealing on a personal level with players. These are humans playing a very frustrating sport. It helps to know you have someone in your corner. With Ozzie, it works because I think he’s so genuine. If you’re a manager without many social skills, you’re probably going to struggle in this area. But for all his crazy ways, players liked Ozzie. Now, I’m going add my two cents to the bigger discussion: And 30+ years of cover sports, I still don’t entirely understand what a manager does. He can’t call plays to make the hitter hit better or the pitcher pitch better. Most of the success or failure of a ballplayer depends on the ballplayer. So we end where we began, that the best managers are the ones with the best players.

Agency Review:

Or maybe, that the best managers are the ones who understand their players best – and that not every manager understands every player and vice versa and therefore can’t get the best out of him. That would explain success as diverse as Billy Martin’s and Phil Jackson’s. In the case of the latter, everyone points to the triangle offense, but I have a feeling it has as much to do with understanding how to deal with egos as large as Jordan’s and Kobe’s as well as Kerr’s and Harper’s. And with Billy Martin, it’s understanding, intuitively or otherwise, how to push Reggie Jackson’s buttons to make him succeed. Heck, look at Ditka – McMahon wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl with any other coach, right? Sure, a lot of those examples are outside of baseball – and I get your point that unlike other sports, there’s no-play calling, so a manager has less direct impact. But I think the thesis still holds water: it’s not just about people skills, it’s sort of about people-matching skills.…

Morrissey:

I’d agree, for the most part, though I’d point out that it wasn’t Phil Jackson’s offense or his people-matching skills that helped him win all those championships. It was Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. But I get your point. It’s not just being able to schmooze the players or stroking their egos. There has to be substance to it. Ozzie knew who he could push and who he couldn’t. There’s an early anecdote in the book where Ozzie really gives it to Gordon Beckham for hanging his head during a slump. He used every known variation of the f-word on the guy. But he had seen something in Beckham that let him know the kid could take it. In the time I’ve known Ozzie, which is about 10 years now, I’ve never heard anyone say he broke down a player emotionally. He’d be honest with you, and maybe you didn’t like what the message was, but I think he could adapt it for whomever he was talking with and what the situation was. Ozzie saw himself as a servant. He had played the game and knew the players were the kings. His job was to serve and make them better. He was a facilitator. Who liked to talk.

method

Agency Review:

In the acknowledgements you describe literally the story of pitching one book and your agent suggesting Ozzie. But how did you get from “what about Ozzie?” to a management/business book about a Venezuelan baseball manager? In the review I go out on a limb and posit that the management concept may not have been where the Ozzie book started, but, of course, I have no way of knowing. So how did that approach evolve, and if it did evolve, how and why, and how did Ozzie respond to the changes – because while you’re clear that this certainly wasn’t an “as told to”, he certainly had involvement, right?

Morrissey:

It absolutely started as a tongue-in-cheek management book, and I thought it was a brilliant idea by my agent, David Black. And if the White Sox had been a winner instead of a huge disappointment, I think the book would have done extremely well. I thought the idea of laying a business-book format over a crazy baseball manager was perfect. And I thought it would be a lot of fun to write, which it mostly was.

Agency Review:

Whoa – “mostly”? Meaning “because writing is never fun” or meaning “because I’m a sports writer and not a business guy” or meaning “because of some other third pain in the ass thing”?

Morrissey:

“Mostly”, as in, “writing isn’t always fun.’’ Usually it is, but not always.

I don’t subscribe to Red Smith’s description that writing is like opening a vein. I didn’t get into this to give blood. I got into it because I liked to write and sports happened to be a pretty good thing to write about. But sometimes writing is a struggle. And doing the reporting and writing a 300-page book is work. I’m not saying it’s like baling hay, but it’s work. Also, if you’ll recall, the White Sox struggled as the season went along. I don’t care what anybody says, if you’re writing a book about a certain subject, you know part of the success of that book has to do with the success of the subject. With the Ozzie fatigue that I alluded to earlier, I suspected as I went along that the book wouldn’t do very well. But you put your head down and do the job.

As for Ozzie’s involvement, this is literally how it went: I obviously knew him from being a sports columnist in Chicago. I went up to him at spring training and said: “I want to write a book about how you go about doing your job as a manager.’’ And he said, “OK.’’ I said I’d be checking in with him regularly to see how he handled certain situations that came up, why he made certain decisions during games and how he handled players. And he said, “Fine.’’ That was it. I can’t think of many other coaches in professional sports who would have reacted like that.

Agency Review:

I’m sure Belichek would have been just as gracious…

Morrissey:

That’s why every sportswriter thanks his lucky stars when somebody like Ozzie comes along. When somebody like Belichick comes along, you wonder who up in the sky you offended.

But Ozzie likes to talk, but I also think he wanted to people to know that there’s a lot more going on inside him than the things that get the most attention – his periodic rants, etc.

Agency Review:

That’s a curious thing to say, because on the one hand, Ozzie’s pretty clear in the book that he sort of doesn’t have much more going on – that he believes that the players win or lose the game, not the manager. So what “more” is there for people to know? And on the other hand, it also implies that he’s not quite as genuine as he seems to be – that he’s aware that there’s a public Ozzie and a private Ozzie – and maybe sometimes the private Ozzie isn’t too happy about the general perception of the public one.

Morrissey:

Well, Ozzie cares a lot more about what people think than he lets on. His thin skin was a thread that ran through the book. What he said didn’t always match up with how he reacted to things. But the point I was trying to make was that I think he sometimes felt like a typecast actor. It’s hard to see Al Pacino playing anything than a screaming, wild-eyed something-or-other now, and I believe Ozzie is conscious that his persona has gone fairly far in that direction. But that’s his fault. Maybe he’d like a market correction. I’m starting to mix my metaphors so I’ll stop.

perspective

Agency Review:

I’m not going to ask you to make World Series predictions, because the internet has a tendency to be forever, and thus today’s reasonable, though ultimately incorrect, predictions have a nasty habit of being thrown in your face for the rest of your life. But I do want to ask you about the internet and social media, because I think you’ve got an interesting perspective on it. As a columnist you see newspapers trying to figure out how to handle it as it sucks revenue from their bottom lines; as a sports reporter you see sports teams trying to manage it as athletes run unfiltered to their fans and as their private exploits become public fodder; and as an employee of a large company, you see businesses trying to figure out how to use it to market efficiently and effectively to their customers. So how do you think the internet and social media continue to have an impact, and do you think there’s anything businesses can learn from what sports has experienced in this area?

Morrissey:

I’m glad you didn’t ask for a prediction because I’m awful at them, to the point where even Ozzie would lose patience with someone with such a miserable record. One of the ironies of social media involves the teams themselves. In their quest to become as corporate as possible, they have embraced the corporate strategy of “shaping the message.’’ So they have cut back traditional media’s access and used their own web sites and Twitter accounts to break news and manage how they want to present their athletes. One problem: Those players have their own Twitter accounts and have shown a tendency to tweet very un-corporate things, things that would make a CEO spit up his lunch. So you have people like Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, who was kicked off the team after tweeting this: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!” Um, time to deploy the PR crisis team. Social media is mostly good but too often it’s awful. That’s its impact, and it’s a mixed bag. The thing businesses can learn from sports is that, no matter how good your intentions are, social media is a living, breathing and sometimes uncontrollable being. Think “Jurassic Park.’’

Agency Review:

I often think that on one level, sports is the canary in the coalmine for culture at large, and I think this is particularly evident in social media right now. Because what social media reminds us is that, as you point out, work is full of people, people who are not homogenous, or on the same page, or making the smartest decisions. And that’s what makes success so remarkable, right – getting all these morons to pull together? And while I get that teams have cut back on traditional media’s access, I would also think that this has opened up a huge direct pathway to athletes that never existed before – not just when they decide to, shall we say “expose” themselves, but in order to talk to them without the filter of agents, coaches, leagues, etc. – in spite of the efforts of Commissioners like Goodell and others.

Morrissey:

That’s true, but I guess I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how a corporation can follow that lead. I can’t see a CEO letting his or her hair down on social media. I think they see the mistakes athletes are making on Twitter, almost daily, and saying, “Why in the world would I want to open us up to that?’’ They look at that canary and see a dead bird.

upside-down

Agency Review:

The premise for the book is that there are lessons Ozzie’s learned in baseball that are applicable to the business world. And while you’re a sportswriter (a job, I confess, I dreamed of doing when I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago) and spend a lot of your time in the sports world, you are also a part of a large business and, whether you want to or not, you engage with the business world on a daily basis. So let’s take the premise of “Ozzie’s School of Management” upside-down; what lessons do you think the business world has for the sports world. And not just because sports has become big business, but because, like the book, they’re both engaged with getting the most out of groups of people but do it in different ways.

Morrissey:

The takeaway for the business world should be that the people doing the work are … people. They’re under pressure to perform, they’re struggling with the workload, they have issues at home. A good manager understands that. A good manager communicates with the people who work for him or her. Ozzie knew that if his players understood that he was with him through thick or thin, they would, in theory, perform better for him. That sounds calculating, and I don’t think Ozzie is calculating. You can’t fake concern and compassion. But you can spend time trying to figure out ways to make your employees better at their jobs. I wouldn’t recommend Ozzie’s vocabulary to anyone who enjoys steady employment, but there is a method to that madness of his. He cares.

Agency Review:

Fair enough, and all good points, but what I’m really wondering is if there’s anything at all that business can teach sports? You know, we always use sports as a metaphor for business – you can’t walk into a conference room without hearing someone talk about “striking out” or “hitting a homerun” – but I’m wondering about the other side of the coin. For example, Ozzie is a brand, and the White Sox under Ozzie were a brand (distinct, say, from the White Sox I grew up with under Chuck Tanner), just like the Raiders under Al Davis were a brand, just like the Flyers with Bobby Clark, just like the Bears under Ditka (so different from the Jack Concannon/Bobby Douglass version I had to endure as a kid), and so on and so on. And managing a brand is something that takes some serious work. Just look at LeBron, or Michael or Kobe or Shaq. Or, to talk about this in terms of an earlier question, social media seems to be a part of that struggle. And as someone who is in the locker rooms and press conferences, you’re seeing that first hand. Or am I just looking at the world through work-colored glasses?

Morrissey:

You’re asking the wrong guy, at least at this point in my career. More and more, I see sports following business’s lead. I see teams in all the major sports trying to “corporate-up.’’ Access to players is much more limited for the media than it was, say, 20 years ago. During interviews or press conferences, there are PR people standing nearby trying to limit the number of questions. There are fewer and fewer one-on-one interviews. There are PR people taping your interview, a chilling effect if there ever was one. Because of all of this, the distance between the media and the athletes is farther than it has ever been. You mention social media as a way for fans to have direct access to the athletes. What that means to a journalist is that questions that should be asked don’t get asked because of our limited access, or if they’re asked by a fan on Twitter, they go unanswered. That’s a long way of saying business is teaching sports plenty, and it’s not all good.

But you’re right about branding. Agents have realized that their athletes are indeed brands, and that if they are marketed like Coca-Cola or Head & Shoulders or Adidas, they can make a lot more money. Teams are doing the same thing, and they are much better run as than they were 20 years ago.

You can read our review of Rick’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Rick here.

Illustration of Rick Morrissey by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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