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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Grounders: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Journey of Baseball, History, and Mentoring (2012) Book Review

I love the game of baseball. There is something so pure at the heart of the game that it can't really be harmed or destroyed - no matter how hard Bud Selig and others try (introducing interleague play, having the All Star Game count, allowing a swimming pool in the outfield in Arizona, adding a second wild card team, etc.).  And that's one of the reasons it makes sense to use the game as an example or source of lessons for children and adults as well.  In Grounders: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Journey of Baseball, History, and Mentoring, author Tom Slone presents a series of lessons that are applicable not only to raising or teaching children, but also in the business area (and, actually, in other social interactions).

When I received my copy of Grounders to review, I was surprised to note that it had been signed by the author, and that he'd included a brief personal message inside. That's unusual.  I called a close friend to remark on it. And I told her, "I have to be honest - this makes me slightly more predisposed to like the book." Thus, before even reading one sentence, I had proved one of the key points of Tom Slone's book. That personal messages have a definite, positive effect.

The book is divided into relatively short chapters, with the lessons clearly labeled and included at the end of each chapter.  And it is structured around a trip that he, a couple of other adults, and several teenage boys took in the summer 2005, a tour of ten Major League Baseball parks in twenty-one days.  (And yes, Slone does say that everyone who learned of the trip expressed a desire to go with them.)

Tom Slone is a big baseball fan (he has season tickets for the Texas Rangers). He decided to take his grandchildren, their friends and two boys from H.O.P.E. Farm on this trip, and to use the trip to impart important life lessons to the boys. H.O.P.E. Farm is an organization that provides male role models to children in an area with a lot of crime.  To be admitted, a boy's guardian has to pay $10 and be involved in his school work. There is also this odd stipulation: "They also must agree that no adult male will live in their home" (page 21). That struck me as strange, but the focus of this book is the trip, not that organization, so it doesn't get into the reasons for such things.

All boys (and the adults) on the trip had to keep a journal, and short bits from those journals are quoted throughout the book.  The participants also had cameras, and there are several black-and-white photos included (though I would have liked even more photos of each park's unique aspects, like the photos of the various statues).

The group's first game is in Florida, and though there is heavy rain, the group is invited to go to the park anyway. Soon after they arrive, the rain stops, and the game is played.  One thing I learned in this section is that the Marlins have cheerleaders. I guess I'd never watched a Marlins game. Very weird. Cheerleaders have no business being at baseball games.  Football and basketball benefit somewhat from their presence, but baseball doesn't need them. The boys each got to wear the 2003 World Series ring. How cool is that?

Many of the lessons, as promised, are related to baseball. For example, at one of the games, an outfielder missed the cut-off man, which eventually led to a run scoring, though no error was charged. The lesson is that even mistakes that aren't recorded still have consequences.  But at first it seems that not enough of these tips are related to the actual game of baseball. Toward the end of the book, more and more of them are related to the sport. And even New York can offer a lesson. The Yankees Stadium grounds crew danced to "Y.M.C.A." while grooming the infield. Slone writes, "The grounds crew in New York reminded us that there is usually more than one way to do things well - and sometimes you can do things well and have fun at the same time" (page 116). And then a little later he writes, "No decent Little League coach would hit a pitch over the fence, tell the kids, 'That's how you hit a home run,' and then expect them to routinely knock pitches out of the park. Yet, metaphorically, this is what many of us do with our employees and mentees" (page 121).  He talks about the importance of following up on a lesson. "Keep observing, encouraging, and correcting people until they get it right" (page 121-122).

Fenway Park

Fenway Park is one of my favorite places on the planet, and any tour of the ballparks has to include this one, the oldest park still in use.  To me, Fenway is baseball. And yes, that's partly because I grew up in Massachusetts.  Boston is still my favorite city, and I was surprised to find that one of the boys wrote in his journal that Boston bored him.  Clearly this kid still has a few lessons to learn.  Anyway, they end up with seats behind home plate. Holy moly, how did they manage that? In the chapters on the first few parks they visited, Tom Slone explained how he got such great seats (by knowing someone, of course). But this time he doesn't offer any information on that.  My favorite bit from this section of the book takes place at Logan Airport.  One of the boys, Spencer, was wearing a Yankees cap, and so was pulled aside for a thorough screening by the good security folks. I love it.  Hey, Boston folks are pretty serious about their sports, and really, really don't like the Yankees.

A lot of these tips and lessons are things that I have implemented on my own already.  For example, I too always get to places early. And I read everything I can get my hands on. (I like that he suggests, "Read in front of your children, so they will pick up the habit," page 136.) And I do surround myself with good people. This seems to be important in all fields, but is certainly true in film (where my passion lies). Others lessons from this book I plan to give a try.  For example, mailing someone your business card later so that it will stick out (though when reading that section I did wonder what if both people in an interaction followed that advice, and neither wished to give the card right then).

However, I do have a few minor problems with the book, mostly related to language, not the lessons themselves. Tom Slone uses the phrase "people of color" (page 22), which I can't stand. Everyone has color. If people didn't, we would not be able to see them. And besides, isn't black the absence of color?  I also really dislike the term "African American," which he uses.  (I remember Bernie Mac once saying something like, "I am not African American. I've never been to Africa. I've been to Detroit.")  And he does use the word "their" when he should write "his or her" so that it agrees in number with the subject (though that is something the editor should have caught).  This might seem like nitpicking; however, if a message is not presented well, readers might not think the source reliable and be more likely to dismiss the message regardless of its merits.

Apart from that, I would have liked a little more about baseball and more details about the different parks.

Tom Slone is Chairman and CEO of Touchstone Communications in Texas.  All proceeds from Grounders go to Big Brothers Big Sisters and H.O.P.E Farm.

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