Last Thursday, June 7, I took my son to the *Red Sox vs. A’s baseball game in Oakland.* Curt Schilling was starting for the Sox; we were celebrating Jacob’s graduation from 2nd grade: it was a perfect day for baseball. We settled into our seats and ended up witnessing the greatest pitchingperformance I have ever seen.
For 8 2/3 innings Schilling was flawless. No hits. No walks. Julio Lugo, the otherwise sure-handed Red Sox shortstop, muffed a routine grounder in the 5th inning; otherwise, Schilling was perfect. As the game wore on, the significance of the moment began to emerge. The Red Sox fans around me, who had been so vocal in the early innings, got quiet. They appreciated the significance of this moment- the fact that Schilling had never thrown a no-hitter during his Hall-of-Fame career. Our normal trash talking bravado gave way to an even stronger puritanical superstition: don’t talk about it (the no-hitter) otherwise you will ruin it.
As many know by now, Schilling made it all the way to the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs, before giving up a solid hit to Shannon Stewart. He retired the next batter and we celebrated the victory, enjoying such a tantalizing brush with immortality. In the days since watching this performance, it has dawned on me that *there are many lessons for entrepreneurs embedded in Schilling’s performance.*
*1. THROW STRIKES*
Do not waste time nibbling around the edges. Don’t be cute. Don’t fall behind. Get up there and hit your target. Get the opposing player in a hole, force him to catch up to you, get him to play your game. Schilling threw 71 out of his 100 pitches for strikes. He walked nobody, and only got to 3 balls on one batter. The entire game lasted a bit over two hours and lost that ‘drag’ that ruins baseball today for all but the most hard core fans.
Corollary: dont waste time up front with branding, market research, business partnerships, investor presentations; get your product to market quickly and hit the problem on the head with a solid solution.
2. TRUST YOUR DEFENSE
Schilling was not afraid to throw it over the plate because he trusted his defense behind him. This was clear from the first pitch. He may not be the most popular player because of his arrogance, but he is loyal and his teammates trust him to let them do their jobs. Coco Crisp made a spectacular play in the bottom of the sixth inning, leaping to keep Mark Kotsay’s long fly ball from going over his head.
Corollary: don’t try to do everything yourself. Let your people play their positions, and trust that they can support you if you bring them the business.
3. LISTEN TO YOUR CATCHER
Schilling is blessed with one of the greatest catchers a pitcher could have: Jason Varitek. Varitek possesses a remarkable ability to call pitches and locations, and has a firm sense of pacing and rhythm. Not only does he understand the batters but he also knows how to read his pitcher, sometimes better than the pitcher himself- who may be caught up in the ’emotion’ of the game.
Schilling took his cues effortlessly from Varitek throughout the game. There were few if any times he waved off his catcher’s sign. The body language between them, even at 90 feet away, was as tight as the best moments of Starsky & Hutch bust. At least up until the very last out, when Schilling’s emotions did in fact overtake him and he
waved off Varitek’s call. From Schilling’s own great blog post about the game:
Now comes the infamous “shake”. In talking with Tek after the game it’s clear to me that he was 100% spot on with his thought, and I was completely wrong with mine. Why would he take a strike at this point? I had gone to 1 three ball count all day. I wasn’t going to walk him and the only thing you do at that point, by taking a strike, is allow me freedom to use my split. There was no way in hell he was taking. I was sure otherwise. So I shake off the slider, execute the pitch I want, and he lines it to right.
Shannon Stewart promptly swung at the fastball (that Schilling thought he would take) and lined it to right field for the first hit of the game.
Corollary: listen to your board. Listen to your advisors. Listen to your investors. They want you to succeed, they see the field better than you do, they know what you are capable of and whether you are having a good day or if your stuff happens to be “off.” If you listen to them, they can help you compensate for your own weaknesses, or for the strength of your opponent. They can help you match the right pitch, the right delivery, and the right direction to the situation at hand. This is not to suggest that you aren’t in control. These are of course your pitches, your delivery, your mechanics. At any time you can wave off the catcher because of a gut feel, since in the end nobody knows your body (or your vision!) like you do. But don’t make a habit of ignoring or overriding your catcher’s signs, else your mistakes will compound quickly and expensively.
4. PITCH, DONT THROW
Ten years ago when he was 30 not 40, Schilling had the power to throw balls by people. Today he needs to pitch. Changing locations and speeds are more important, and more efficient, than simply whizzing the ball by batters. During the game, Schilling was locked in. He alternated fastballs with splitters with sliders. He threw strikes inside and then outside. He knew that if he followed his gameplan, listened to his catcher, that he could keep the aggressive A’s hitters off-balance and force them to hit weak fly balls and grounders to his fielders. By the end of the game, his legs were still fresh and he could lean back and hit 93-94 as he did throughout the ninth inning.
Corollary: pick your spots, modulate your energy, don’t try to sprint through a marathon. Like a baseball game, a startup takes a long time to develop and the founder is rarely still around at the end. In order to achieve the equivalent of a complete game, you need to carefully balance your passion and your wisdom: too much of the former and you will burn yourself and your team out; too much of the latter and you will never get up the hockey stick of growth.
There will always be a few entrepreneurs who have the technical genius or unlimited salesmanship to realize their vision without needing to change a thing; but most of us need to grind it out one pitch at a time and adjust our strategy accordingly. To achieve as a startup what Schilling achieved on the field last week is to balance a complex set of priorities- vision, engineering, distribution, monetization, without taking a single customer, partner, employee or investor for granted. It does not happen often, but when it does, it is inevitably a combination of raw talent, hard work, and a few lucky plays by your defense.