Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The World Series, Ted Williams, and the Fine (Lost?) Art of the Graceful Finish

Another World Series win for the Red Sox, and a completely different experience from 2004. Three years ago the inevitable moment when the whole thing came crashing down (or dribbling through someone’s legs) always seemed just around the corner. In fact, the 2006 season was well under way before I finally felt comfortable that the 2004 title was not somehow going to be revoked. The Curse? Ancient history.

This year, it was almost like watching the Patriots – you may not have known they were going to win, but you almost expected it, and weren’t the least bit surprised when it happened. I went to Game 1 at Fenway (my first Series game ever), and the 13-1 shellacking the Sox handed the Rockies and their ace Jeff Francis set the tone. Game 3 was a good window into the “new” Sox – after blowing a 6-0 lead and letting the Rockies close to 6-5, the Sox roared back to win 10-5. And nobody was surprised. After that, the Game 4 win seemed inevitable.

Looking back, it’s easy to pinpoint the precise instant when ‘The Curse’ was broken: bottom of the 8th, Game 6, 2004 ALCS. Jeter was on first after his RBI single had cut the Sox lead to 4-2. A-Rod hit a grounder down the first-base line that was fielded by Bronson Arroyo, who tagged Rodriguez out, but A-Rod deliberately knocked the ball loose. The ball rolled down the right-field line, Jeter came around to score and Rodriguez was standing on first. Here we go again - the Yankees had cut the Red Sox lead to 4-3 with one out in the eighth inning and A-Rod was on second base.

Now in the Bad Old Days (i.e., September 12, 1918 to October 19, 2004), we know what would have happened – the umpires would have looked at each other, shrugged, issued a collective “We didn’t see anything” and the Sox, up 4-0 at the start of the inning, would have watched the Yankees go on to win the World Series. But the umps called A-Rod out, Jeter was sent back to first, Arroyo struck out Gary Sheffield, The Curse was broken and the Sox would be champs.
Now it’s a whole new ball game.


Sitting at Fenway in the cold, drizzly Fall murk during Game 1 made me think of the best baseball pieces ever written – Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’, his famous essay about Ted Williams’ last game and Hollywood-ending last at-bat. If you haven’t read it, you should – it’s a great combination of fantastic writing and heroic subject matter.

Forty seven years after his last at-bat, Williams’ numbers are still staggering. Everyone knows he’s the last guy to hit .400 (66 years ago, when he also had an incredible .574(!) on base percentage to go with the .406 average), but he’s also the only American Leaguer ever to win the Triple Crown twice. When he retired, he was third all-time in home runs, trailing only Jimmy Foxx and the Babe – both of whom, coincidentally, had also spent time in a Red Sox uniform.
With the team, Williams (who was born twelve days before the Sox won the 1918 Series), is still #1 All-Time in home runs and batting average, and second only to the great Carl Yastrzemski in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, RBIs and extra base hits.

Those are awe-inspiring numbers, made even more so by the fact that he spent five years in the prime of his career not at Fenway, but flying fighter planes in the Marines.

But for Updike the numbers are just the start. He describes Williams’ volatile relationship with the Boston fans and media – deftly characterized as a “marriage”, with all the attendant ups and downs. And finally – and most important - he presents Williams’ ability to have the sense, the grace, the self-discipline and self-knowledge to know when it was over and how to end on the most graceful note possible.

What makes a strong ending? One way to tell is when the audience, with some surprise, says “Wow. That was really good.” Read the Updike piece - you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Disney Debacle Sucessfully Diffused?

Here’s a PR challenge old Walt Disney never had to deal with – the pure as Snow White 18-year old ingĂ©nue in his latest blockbuster movie showed up on the Internet this summer — stark naked. While Walt was rolling over in his grave, the company that bears his name flawlessly executed two key crisis communications tactics to preserve the franchise and move beyond the problem

If you have kids older than 7, you’ve probably heard about (and watched) High School Musical, numbers 1 and 2, Disney’s spectacularly successful and lucrative made for TV movies. August’s premiere of ‘High School Musical 2’ was the most watched program ever on basic cable. (Previous #1: 1993’s Gore vs. Perot NAFTA debate.) The HSM franchise is so successful that among girls ages 6 to 11 who were watching TV that night, an incredible 80%(!!) were watching HSM2. Another smash for Disney, as they geared up for - what else – High School Musical 3, and more wholesome singing, dancing and happy endings.

But then, a slight problem: a few days later Vanessa Anne Hudgens, who plays HSM’s brainy, sweet-as-pie female lead Gabriella Montez, was on the Internet – in a nude ‘self-portrait’. Not exactly in alignment with Gabriella’s image – or Disney’s enduring 80 year-old brand.

Disney quickly did two very smart things. After deciding to keep Hudgens as Gabriella going forward they did Smart Thing #1 – they quickly announced it, which swiftly and emphatically stopped speculation about the young star’s HSM future. By filling the vacuum, the company effectively cut off media conversation about Gabriella’s future as a student at East Side High. After that, there was very little to talk about.

Then, Smart Thing #2 – with nothing else that would be helpful to talk about, Disney just stopped talking about it. This is a technique that I call “Denying fuel to the fire.”

Hudgens, for her part, also doused the fire with a matter-of-fact but genuine sounding Disneyesque apology to “my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me” for the “private” photos…“lapse in judgment”…”embarrassed”…”regret”, etc.

Case closed.

Now the caveat: Smart Thing #2 - denying fuel to the fire - only works when no additional newsworthy information will be exposed, and the only thing left to do is speculate, analyze, etc. In a dynamic situation, with changing facts and circumstances, there is no choice but to execute Smart Thing #1 over and over again: fill the information vacuum immediately, and define the issue on your own terms. But in the case of Gabriella Montez, with nothing left to say, the story was over.

Rest easy, Walt.