The human element

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...

I feel like I’ve got considerable experience (expertise is way too strong a word) in maybe two areas: newspapers and baseball teams. I’ve also played in a rock band, worked in a restaurant and on one memorable occasion was mistaken for a male stripper when I accidentally walked in on a bachelorette party.

(As you might have guessed that was a quite a few years and pounds ago.)

Anyway, here’s what my experience has taught me: companies, restaurants, sports teams and government institutions want to project a certain image to the public, but what lies beneath that public image is something else entirely.

Once you get behind the scenes you might find that things are a lot less professional and efficient than they appear from the outside. That’s because humans are involved and humans tend to be less than perfect.

For instance…

Jason Kendall’s first at bat

In 1996 Jason Kendall – my Throwback co-author – had his first at-bat in the big leagues and faced pitcher Kevin Brown.

To give you some idea what Jason was up against, Brown was starting his tenth year in the big leagues, had already been to an All-Star game and would lead the National League in ERA that season.

Brown – known for having a nasty sinker in the low-to-mid 90s – threw one on the outside corner for strike one. Jason watched it go by and thought: “If they’re all this good, I’m screwed.”

Brown got Jason in a two-strike count and then locked him up with another nasty sinker for a called strike three…except the umpire didn’t call it. Frank Pulli, the guy behind the plate, called it a ball.

Jason says Brown then made the mistake of throwing him a slider – a pitch he could hit – and Jason Kendall started his big league career with a single.

After the inning was over Jason put his catching gear on, squatted behind the plate and that’s when Pulli leaned in and told Jason he got that strike three called a ball because Pulli loved Jason’s dad Fred – a former big league catcher – and Jason should not expect to get another gift like that in the future.

This is a Grade A example of the human element affecting the outcome of a situation; Kevin Brown has one less strikeout and Jason Kendall has one more hit on their records because Frank Pulli liked Fred Kendall.

Where’s the metric for that?

One guy hits home runs, but he’s a horse’s ass, his teammates will hate him and he’ll be a distraction – not a guy you want in your clubhouse. His numbers won’t be worth the trouble he causes.

Another guy puts up good numbers, but has a substance-abuse problem, so a team in a town known for partying – L.A. and New York make the list – probably shouldn’t sign him. He should play in a town where there’s not all that much to do after a game ends.

And if you think I made up those two examples, guess again.

Despite the best efforts of the analytics movement you cannot take the human element out of baseball and that being the case, you better account for it.

The French fry episode

If you ever worked in a restaurant you already know there’s a bunch of work to be done after a restaurant closes. Food has to be put away, stoves need to be cleaned and the deep-fat fryer needs to be emptied.

So when a restaurant is empty a half-hour before closing it’s not unusual for the staff to start cleaning up early so they can head home early.

I was working in a restaurant which has since gone out of business (huge surprise) when a drunk, obnoxious customer showed up a few minutes before closing and wanted a hamburger and French fries. It was explained to him that the deep-fat fryer had already been cleaned and serving him an order a fries would require putting a big cube of lard in the fryer, waiting for it to melt and heat and then cooking up a single order of fries.

The customer didn’t care; the restaurant was still open, French fries were on the menu and by God he was going to have some.

Which he did.

The cook picked them out of the garbage, heated them up and then leaned on the counter watching the guy eat them.

This is why I never give shit to a waiter or waitress; they’re going to get alone time with your food before you eat it and if you think disgusting things don’t happen in restaurants all the time you haven’t been paying attention to how often the Health Board closes one.

And those are just the restaurants they catch.

Editorial board meetings

I’ve been on a couple editorial boards and attended thousands of meetings and if you think it’s a bunch of Oliver Wendell Holmes clones reasoning out the issues of the day, you might be disappointed.  

Editorial board meetings aren’t too far off what you might hear in a coffee shop if the participants were over-caffeinated and particularly long-winded.

Turns out you don’t have to possess any special expertise to hold strong opinions.

The most important difference is when the editorial board discussion is over somebody tries to get all the different viewpoints into one editorial, throws in a few words that nobody but George Will ever uses at home – poppycock and balderdash come to mind – and then puts it in a newspaper.

As far as I know, “It’s not rocket science” has never been used as a newspaper motto, but probably should be.

The police ride-along

Back in the 1970s I did a police ride-along for a story and after a couple hours of riding in a squad car and dealing with the public I was ready to shoot half the people we met.

Cops do not get to spend much time with the cream of society and after listening to Olympic-level assholes tell unlikely stories I could see why cops might become cynical. I hadn’t even finished one shift and I was well on my way to developing an “us against them” mentality – an excellent reason I should not be given a firearm.

But I was given a flashlight.

It was one of those big cop flashlights with about 42 batteries to give it some heft and the officer I was with advised me I should start swinging it if the party we were about to break up turned ugly. I said there were way more partiers than cops and I was going to wait to see which side was winning before I picked a target.

My dad was a cop and I’ve hung out with cops and generally like them, but I’m under the distinct impression that things don’t always go by the book out in the field. For instance: I’m guessing the police manual doesn’t suggest arming a citizen with a flashlight and giving him the OK to whack a drunk if the spirit moves him.

Cops are people too and it wouldn’t be surprising if they don’t give tickets to their friends or spray a buddy’s eating utensils with pepper spray when he’s not looking (one of the best practical jokes I ever heard) or back up a fellow cop’s testimony in a trial.

You can create the best, most efficient police department on planet Earth, but at some point humans will get involved and then things won’t always go as planned.

Our justice system

I started thinking about all this after I got called for jury duty and the attorneys involved got to question the prospective jurors. We were getting asked about what we believed and after giving it some thought I believe our justice system is a crapshoot.

Get the wrong judge, you’re screwed; hire the right attorney, you walk. Get just one juror who believes you’re innocent and he or she might save your bacon; don’t get that juror and you better look good in orange.

Pick any business or institution and the people who work there probably know all the screwed up stuff that goes on behind the scenes, but we want to believe somebody, somewhere knows what they’re doing.

And as long as humans are involved, I’m pretty sure I don’t.