My phone rang sometime mid-morning. It was a typical January day in San Francisco: cool and damp and wonderful. I was about to learn some disappointing news.
Relax. I can handle it.
I’ve failed so many times, it’s silly. Somewhere along the way I learned that failure isn’t so terrible. In fact, it might be good.
Sure, most of you see me as the proud man who won the Men’s Division “Bull Chip Toss” at the 1991 Oregon Trail Days Celebration. (Fact is, I set the all-time record with a toss of 186′ 4″ — right past the Schoenover family sitting in their pickup at the end of the street.) The rest of you might think of me as the guy who helped lead Gering High School to a 3rd Place finish in the National Mock Trial competition in Portland,Oregon in 1990. (We should have won the whole thing. I refuse to make excuses about Colorado cheating in the semi-finals, though. I’m over it.)
My dad warned me that success wouldn’t always come so easily. He said I’d eventually suffer setbacks — and if I was ever going to make it, I’d have to learn from them.
He was right.
I answered the phone and I’ll never forget what I heard next. “Hi, Dave? This is Jon Miller calling.”
Let’s just say it was not a call I was expecting. I replied with something calculated and articulate, like: “No $#!%! I’d recognize that voice anywhere!”
Jon told me that the Giants filled their opening with an experienced big-league broadcaster. He had just finished listening to my tape, however, and liked it. We talked at length. He gave me incredible insight and advice. He invited me to lunch.
I hung up the phone and jumped as high as I could. It was the best rejection call I’d ever taken. It was a moment that changed my life.
I thought about that phone call a lot as I flew home from the baseball Winter Meetings last night. Funny how that call, one of the most important events of my career was, basically, a failure.
I love the Winter Meetings. General Managers mingle and posture. Reporters contrive news and lurk in the lobby. Businesses target team executives with anything from concession ideas to database software innovations.
I just wander around chatting with old friends and making new ones.
We talk shop and catch up on real life. Only at the Winter Meetings can I end up at dinner with Bubba, Fuzzy, Boxer and Foots. We waited for The Cowboy to show up, but he had to file a story. Or get his email fixed. Maybe he was tired of me asking about Pine Bluffs.
The stories and the laughs are endless. The news is fascinating. Sometimes the real-life updates are fun and sometimes they give pause. It’s comforting to be back with one’s baseball family.
The Winter Meetings also host hundreds of fresh-faced kids looking for their first job in baseball. They’re easy to spot. They wear blue blazers and ties. All the time.
One plucky kid named Terry leaned in to interrupt my chat with Jon Morosi late Sunday night. The evening was winding down for me. Jon was still chasing a story.
Terry was something else. He was searching for job advice. He was the type of kid whom you could easily dismiss if deadlines and editors pressed. Jon paid attention though. So did I.
We dug a little deeper and learned Terry survived cancer four years ago. He’s one year away from complete remission. He spent last year pulling tarp, making copies and doing grunt work all day, every day, for a short-season minor league team. He did it for nothing. Now he was back again, looking for another internship — maybe a full-season gig this time or a paying job — with the hopes of advancing his career.
Jon gave Terry his card and offered to help however he could. I explained that I was looking for work, myself.
I bumped into Terry the next day and he told me that he had been rejected by a few teams. I’m sure he’ll be turned down by several more. Someone is eventually going to hire him though. They are going to enjoy a personal and professional journey they’ll never forget. I can’t wait to hear how he does.
I met many more young guys betting on their dreams. Some were timid. My primary piece of advice was for them to try to get turned down by a team. Soon.
My first contribution to the professional world went to print in the summer of 1997. Technically, I was muddling through my third season of minor-league play-by-play when the June 2 issues of Forbes ASAP arrived at people’s homes. We called it the “Failure” issue and my story was “Famous Flops.”
For the technology-inclined, the article discussed innovations like Apple’s Lisa computer, the Kaypro II and other fascinating things like CP/M – one of the first widely used commercial operating systems. There were more, but I’ll spare you. The point is that while all of these things flopped, their failure, or mere existence in some cases, led to better products and business.
It’s a simple premise, but one we don’t often acknowledge. Nikola Tesla survived various explosions and unexpected fires before fathering massive breakthroughs like alternating current and radio. Tesla met with enough failure and criticism to paralyze most of us. The Wright Brothers must have failed hundreds of times before actually flying. No one would have blamed them for giving up.
But how else can you do it? Real learning doesn’t exist without failure. No matter the discipline, if you can’t accommodate failure, you can’t get better.
By the time I took that call in 2002, I had been turned down by several Major League teams. Shoot, it was a battle just to get my first minor-league job.
Prior to the Sonoma County Crushers hiring me in the spring of 1995, I spent nearly a year living out of my car.
I graduated from college a semester early and watched my classmates race off to their high-paying jobs or grad-school endeavors. For a few weeks, I squatted with anyone still in the area. I spent plenty of evenings in the basement of the college radio station. Sometimes I’d see a dorm or fraternity under renovation during the summer and sneak in through an open window at night. On rare occasions, I simply had to lean back in the front seat of my Toyota Tercel. (It had a nice hatch, but I used that as my closet.)
It’s important to note that this lifestyle was my choice. I could have taken a “real job” like my friends. We would have shared an apartment and bought furniture. I chose not to. I saw those things as a trap. I needed to stay nimble, in case a ball club needed me on a moment’s notice.
Talk about optimistic!
So I showered at the campus gym, bought day-old donuts at discount and found unique ways to fill the other meals. I had no phone (I mostly used the radio-station sports desk as my “home” base).
I wasn’t in regular touch with my parents that year. I didn’t want them to fret. My dad worked too hard to have to think about what I was doing. I felt selfish. I didn’t think my parents would necessarily disapprove, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
Looking back on it, I realize that my dad and I were doing mostly the same thing. He started his business with absolutely nothing. No money, no industry experience and — at the time — two baby boys. Leaning on hard work and a some trial and error, he ended up with a truck, a building and an Olympia Beer distributorship.
It’s the water.
He was a one-man show for a while, working all but a couple moon-lit hours each day. But he was building his own little empire, and his passion for excellence was obvious. He taught my brothers and me a lot about a true-day’s work and handling challenges.
Anyway, I’d lug radio equipment up to Candlestick Park whenever I could. I’d sit at the very top of the stadium and barricade myself from the wind by stacking the components next to me. Then I’d “broadcast” the game into my tape recorder.
One of those tapes helped get me my first job: my ticket to 11 more years in the minor leagues.
I learned from each tape I made. I learned from every minor-league and Major League club that didn’t hire me. And I learned a lot about myself. It wasn’t easy, but it was an exciting and fun time.
So I thought about that long-ago call from Jon last night. And I wondered if Terry had found a team that saw in him what I did Sunday night. I already missed all my great friends — no, my baseball family — who were still back in Nashville.
Especially my longtime friend, Scott, who let me crash for two days in his hotel room.
I went to Nashville on a whim this week. I wanted to see everyone and let them know that, indeed, I was not going back to the Houston Astros. I also wanted them to know that I don’t see that as a failure.
I see it as an opportunity.