Put Me In, Coach

Laura Beard offers nine lessons those who work in higher education can learn from baseball.

October 27, 2016

Acclaimed baseball columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote a book on how life imitates the World Series. As a lifelong baseball fan with an adult life spent in academe, I often think about the ways in which university life is like baseball. So, with the World Series in full swing, I offer some words of baseball wisdom for those in the minor leagues (graduate students), the rookies (beginning assistant professors) and even the more seasoned players (tenured profs) who might be struggling with their mechanics this year.

No one bats 1.000. In baseball, a good hitter bats around .300, which means getting a hit three out of 10 times you come up to the plate. Only the best hitters ever reach .400 (and since no one has done that since 1941, you can see how rare it is). When you don’t get a hit, you walk back to the dugout and talk over your at bat with other players, the hitting coach or the manager to see what you can learn in order to adjust your approach for your next at bat.

In academe, you can’t expect to bat a thousand with your grant applications, article submissions or job applications. If you get a grant application rejected or an article returned from a journal, learn from the experience. Read the feedback from the reviewers. Talk it over with others in your discipline. How can you adjust your approach? Get ready to submit to another journal or another funding agency. Don’t give up if you strike out the first time.

Know your department’s Mendoza line. In baseball, a player is said to be hitting below the Mendoza line (named after shortstop Mario Mendoza, who hit .198 as starting shortstop for the Seattle Mariners in 1979) if your batting average drops below .200. When you are hitting below the Mendoza line, you are in danger of being cut from the team.

In academe, you need to know your department’s and your university’s Mendoza line. Know what the tenure and promotion expectations are regarding research, teaching, service, community outreach and engagement. If you aren’t meeting them, you are in danger of not getting tenure or passing that first probationary review.

Be a team player. Academics may think they are lone scholars, locked into their own offices or ivory towers, but we all need to be team players. Our departments, faculties or colleges are judged by the metrics of the whole group, so we need to work together to make our units succeed. Baseball games are not usually won solely on home runs but on a combination of walks, singles, doubles, the rare triple and those glorious home runs adding up to a total score. In academia, as in baseball, the game is a lot more fun if you can celebrate the accomplishments of your teammates. If you need convincing, just watch some videos of the Orioles’ Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop or read this piece on the best bromance in baseball.

Know when and when not to charge the mound. In baseball, when a batter is hit by a thrown pitch, he is automatically awarded first base. The hit batter needs to shake it off and take first base so play can continue, remembering that not every ball that hits him is intentional on the part of the pitcher. After all, if pitchers had perfect aim, we wouldn’t have so many walks in baseball. But hotheaded players take every hit as an intentional one, charge the mound and disrupt the game -- putting themselves and their teammates at risk of additional injury in a brawl.

In academe, we also have colleagues who are all too ready to charge the mound. They take every word, every committee assignment and every course slot on the timetable as a deliberate pitch inside and come out ready to charge the mound. We all have those colleagues. But remember, if you don’t shake it off and take first base, you can’t score a run for yourself and your team. Stay calm, take first base and keep playing.

Understand the unwritten rules. As George Will notes, “In baseball, as in the remainder of life, the most important rules are unwritten. But not unenforced.” There are unwritten rules about stealing bases or bunting related to big leads and no-hitters. Breaking those rules is one way to get hit by a pitcher the next time you come to the plate. Many baseball teams have their own strong cultures. For years, the Baltimore Orioles were known for “The Oriole Way,” which was all about teaching the fundamentals at all levels of their organization. For Hall of Fame Oriole manager Earl Weaver, “Baseball is pitching, defense and three-run homers.”

Does your department, college or university have a culture? Are you respecting it? Can you? I have taught in and chaired departments with different expectations regarding office hours, faculty engagement in student advising, departmental meetings, office parties, university graduation ceremonies and more. Some of these things are written down, but many are not. Talk to trusted colleagues, observe and figure out the unwritten rules and how you might fit in.

A colleague at another university discovered when she was a junior faculty member working with her office door closed that she was perceived by senior colleagues as unfriendly. So she adjusted, closing her door when she needed to do her work but keeping it open some of the time to meet the needs of her department’s open-door culture.

Run hard every time you hit the ball. A baseball player hits what he thinks is going to be a pop fly. Many players don’t bother to run hard because they think the ball will be caught for an automatic out. The best players run hard to first anyway. That's their job. The outfielder might lose the ball in the sun. You won’t get the base if you don't run it out.

Sometimes, as an academic, you don’t feel your best about the paper you are going to present at a conference. You are nervous about that prestigious audience or a new idea you are presenting. I was terribly anxious one year about a paper I was presenting at a major venue, but I ended up with multiple offers to publish the work. Run out every ball.

Prepare yourself for a career in the game. Smart baseball players learn from coaches, managers and other players. They are always watching and talking to others to learn all they can. Younger players make a point to sit next to veterans on the bench and the veterans sit next to coaches and managers to talk over plays and possibilities. Those players make the best managers and coaches after their playing days are over. They’ve worked to guarantee themselves a career in the game.

In academe, if you want a long and varied career, do the same. Watch how other people work, what they do, talk to them, learn from them. You may have the chance to be department chair, dean, chief diversity officer or some other role in your institution one day. Be ready for it. Invite those people to have lunch and talk to them about their current roles and the career paths that led them there. Take advantage of professional development opportunities that might be pertinent to the future role that interests you.

Adjust if you move from player to manager. If you do move from faculty member to department chair or dean, remember the words of the immortal Earl Weaver: “You’re always going to be a rotten bastard … as long as you manage. That’s the rule. To keep your job, you fire others or bench ’em or trade ’em. You have to do the thinking for 25 guys, and you can’t be too close to any of them.”

While department chairs don’t fire or trade faculty members, we do recommend for tenure and promotion, and that can feel like the same thing to faculty members who have worked for so many years for their academic careers. If you make the move from faculty member to department chair within your own department, be ready to be viewed differently. You may think of yourself as one of the professors, but you have a different role and a different power. You can’t be too close to anyone without creating problems. So if your main friends were in your department, you may need to cultivate new friendships outside it.

Learn another language. Major League Baseball games are broadcast in 233 countries and territories, with telecasts in 17 different languages. All the teams are required to have at least two Spanish language interpreters available to work with their players. MLB players come from around the world and speak various languages, including English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Italian, German, Dutch and Portuguese. Speaking multiple languages can certainly help if you want a career in baseball.

Colleges and universities are also very multilingual places, where you interact with others from around the world. Speaking other languages will enable you to engage more fully with your students, colleagues and potential research partners and collaborators. You may have the chance to teach in another country, lead a study abroad program or mentor international research assistants. Knowing other languages increases your chance to hit the ball out of the park.

There are many more lessons in baseball -- lessons of cause and effect, motive and result, sweat and sacrifice, teamwork and collaboration, mentorship, community engagement, or how statistics are increasingly used to make decisions -- that we can apply to the university environment. Baseball teaches us to take risks, since you can’t steal second base unless you take your foot off first. It teaches us that every day is a new day and a new opportunity. It teaches us to keep swinging (or keep writing), for as Hank Aaron said, “Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” Like Walt Whitman, and like Annie Savoy, who paraphrases him in Bull Durham, said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game -- the American game.” For me, it’s an academic’s game, too. So take me out to the ball game; I’m ready to play.


Laura Beard is a displaced Baltimore Orioles fan serving as professor and chair of the department of modern languages and cultural studies at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, where she dreams of summer and baseball through long, cold winters.


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