Facing Tough Competition

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A Lesson From Bob Gibson: Facing Tough Competition

By Kirk McCarley

Having spent the better part of this millennium in St. Louis I became an avid follower of the Cardinals. Time spent at the current Busch Stadium and its predecessor was a slice of baseball heaven.

St. Louis boasts one of the best fan bases in all of the major leagues. Cardinal followers are highly baseball-educated fans. At Busch it is not uncommon to observe as many as three generations of family members in attendance, elderly ladies keeping score, and overhear intelligent conversations about baseball strategy.

A great appreciation of St. Louis baseball history exists. From Dizzy Dean to Stan Musial, from Lou Brock to Ozzie Smith; from Budweiser Beer to Clydesdales; roots run deep.

Many fans of my generation and older still speak of a magical individual season 50 years ago, so sensational that the rules were altered the next year partly due to the achievement. Pitcher Bob Gibson was 32 in 1968 and in his 10th season with the Cardinals. He opened that year unspectacularly, earning just three wins against five losses in his initial eight decisions. The final numbers are what is recalled and still recited:  22 wins, 9 losses, an earned run average of 1.12, 28 games completed out of 34 starts, 13 shutouts.

Put that season in the perspective of today’s game. Granted baseball has changed. However, in 2017 the most wins by a pitcher was 18. The lowest earned run average was 2.25, a full run and then some above Gibson’s mark. The most complete games was 5 and 3 shutouts led all of baseball.

Bob Gibson was an intense competitor, feared by opponents and at times his teammates. His long-time catcher, Tim McCarver, recalls those rare instances that Gibson would find himself in a jam. McCarver would visit the mound to “settle him down.”  Frequently those visits were met with a glare followed by, “McCarver go back to your place (or a choice of more colorful verbiage to that effect).”

Many Hall of Famers of that era flailed against Gibson: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente among them. Yet, lesser known players such as Billy Williams of the Cubs and Richie Hebner of the Pirates enjoyed some degree of success. What must it have been like to face Bob Gibson in 1968, especially knowing the likelihood of failing four out of every five times?  And what parallels does it have today?

Remember a first audition?  An initial talk or presentation?  Palms were sweaty, heart pounding rapidly, throat tightening. The inclination may have been for flight as in “God get me out of here.” Yet you stood in, survived the experience, likely had some success, and were better prepared for a similar situation the next time around.

Williams and Hebner figured out something about Gibson that made even the invincible appear just a little more human. Maybe it was approaching the “at bat” with a “nothing left to lose” viewpoint. There was patience in “waiting for the right pitch.” It could have been merely the baseball fundamental of making solid contact with the ball. David had his Goliath, equipped with just a few stones and slingshot. Expectations for success were low. Yet, he was patient and waited for the right time. He made solid contact.

Experience seems to suggest that the best antidote to facing the giants in life is to meet them head on. Consider your strengths and abilities. Take into account the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of what you’re confronting. Maintain perspective.

Bob Gibson was one of the finest ballplayers of my lifetime. And, as we now move towards another season of baseball, it’s fitting to illustrate that any of us can have our moment.

With more than 30 years of executive leadership experience in both public and private sector environments, Kirk McCarley assists others in pursuing career and personal transitions.  A graduate of the University of North Texas, Kirk is a Certified Professional Coach as well as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and SHRM-CP Certified. He also is a Production Assistant for both college football and basketball for ESPN and leads group cycling classes as a Certified Spinning Instructor. For more information visit www.theseedsowercoach.com or email kirk@theseedsowercoach.com.