Posted by: Ryan | March 13, 2011

We Few, We Happy Few

I’m not much of a televised baseball kind of a guy, but since this is the offseason, and I have no option to listen to games on the radio, I’ve been dealing with the last vestiges of winter by re-watching Games 4 through 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series (ALCS). It’s the Red Sox’ finest moment: coming from three games down to defeat the Yankees, before moving on to sweep the Cardinals for their first championship since 1918.

This is at least the third time I’ve watched the DVDs, and the signature moments of the games have become as familiar and careworn to me as the pinups in a 14-year-old boy’s lone copy of Playboy. Dave Roberts stealing second ahead of Jeter’s tag in Game Four. Ortiz’s hump-backed liner to win Game Five. Schilling’s bloody sock. Damon’s grand slam.

The tale of a team rising from the ashes to nab the most unlikely of victories still produces a welling in my chest, still holds me enrapt.

But recently I’ve been thinking more about the 2003 Red Sox, the team that did not make it to the World Series, the team that succumbed to the Yankees in the most excruciating manner the year before.

Photo of Pedro and Grady LittleI don’t own a DVD set of the 2003 ALCS; only the most masochistic Red Sox fan would. But my memories of Game Seven are clearer than anything else that happened during my sleep-added, stay-at-home-dad years. Watching the game with my in-laws, who had just moved to Vermont and had not yet been inculcated to the special suffering of Red Sox fans. The cold apprehension in my stomach that expanded into an icy pool when Jorge Posada tied the score in the eighth. Driving home on empty dirt roads, my sleeping one-year-old in the back of the Subaru, listening to the brutal finish of the game. Feeling absolutely heartbroken and bereft as Joe Castiglione described the Yankees mobbing Aaron Boone after his game-winning home run.

I wore my Red Sox hat to the general store the next morning to get the paper, and was given a wan greeting by a group of older men who looked as haggard and grief-stricken as I did. “Here’s another one,” they said, and we glanced at each other quickly, not daring to speak further, before moving on with our Sundays and our sorrow.

In the paper was a photo of Nomar Garciaparra, the shortstop and face of the Red Sox at the time, walking through Logan airport in the early morning, returning home from New York with his eyes red, his broad shoulders slumped in defeat.

Photo of NomarOnly later did I read about the atmosphere in the Red Sox’ locker room in the moments after the loss. The manager, Grady Little, had made catastrophic mistakes in the game, most memorably leaving Pedro Martinez in to pitch long after he was spent. But a sportswriter described how Little presided over an mood after the game that was as close to holy as anything the writer had felt in a locker room before. The team sat together for a long time, the writer said, experiencing their grief and disappointment together, and there were no Knute Rockne Gipper speeches, no vows to get ‘em next year, no glib phrases about whatever doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger. They were just together, one last time, as a team.

And although Nomar was gone by the time the Red Sox defeated the Yankees the following year, and Grady Little was gone as well, I have no doubt that the seed of the team’s future success was planted in that morose clubhouse while all of New York City celebrated around and above them.

———

I came up with the idea to blog about baseball a little more than a year ago, when I was in need of some joy in my life. I had gone through hard times before, most notably in my mid-20s, when I endured a prolonged stretch of under- and unemployment.

But this was different. I had a job now, a good one, and led a team of eight people who worked on the websites of a large health care system in New Hampshire. I had finally found a way to make a decent living while residing in a beautiful part of the world.

Except that the job was killing me. Most mornings, I would sit in my still-ticking car in the parking lot, my commute finished, trying to talk myself into opening my door and starting the day. I liked the work, and the people I worked with, but I was completely overwhelmed with the responsibility that had fallen to me and the team: transitioning our six massive websites to a new back-end platform, while simultaneously redesigning those sites, editing thousands of web pages, and subtly changing the culture of a 6500-person organization.

Photo of Nixon and DamonNothing in my work history had prepared me for this level of responsibility, I told myself. This really wasn’t the job I had been hired to perform. I was only in this position because no one else had shown they could lead this effort.

And by many measures, what we were trying to accomplish was impossible. We simply didn’t have enough people, or enough time, to make our deadline.

So I struggled. I re-experienced emotions I thought I had left behind years ago. I felt guilty for not birthing a magic plan that would lead us to guaranteed success. I felt like a fraud, a failure. I felt like I was in over my head.

But then, slowly, a different way of thinking came to me. Maybe my role, I thought, was not necessarily to guide the team to success. It was to prepare us to do our best, and then be there, Grady Little-style, for whatever might happen. If we ended up sitting in our own morose conference room, the list of impossible tasks on the whiteboard dooming us to failure, I wanted to be part of the conversation.

Once I realized that our togetherness was more important than any project, climbing out of my car in the morning started to get easier.

We’re going to launch our redesigned websites in two weeks, a week ahead of schedule. They may not win lots of awards, but if you were familiar with what the sites *used* to look like, or with the culture around the web team five years ago, you will understand what we have accomplished. On just the final phase of this project, we’ve logged over 1300 hours of work.

Getting to this point meant coming in every morning and working as if we were certain of success. It meant opening the car door and crossing that parking lot, even when every fiber of your being told you to drive back home.

It was a lot like suiting up and playing the best baseball of your life, even thoPhoto of Manny and MIllarugh you are down three games to none, and no team has ever come back from such a deficit.

I’ll end with a quote from Shakespeare that’s in danger of being overused. It refers specifically to men, while the majority of people on the team I have had the honor to lead are women. But I can’t think of a better way to describe how I feel about working together so hard and so long to pull off what once seemed impossible.

I expect that the 2003 Red Sox may have described themselves in the same way, even though they ultimately fell short of their goal.

We few, we happy few, Shakespeare wrote. We band of brothers.

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