Sometimes in management one has to make an unpopular decision and stick to it regardless of the consequences. In my case, my management career began rather inauspiciously when I was eleven years old.
From the mid-fifties to the early sixties, my dad waited patiently through the birth of two girls to finally get his very own son. However, it was ultimately his middle child, my sister “Paula Perfect,” who became the son that I was not destined to be.
Paula Gail Jones was my hero in every way. In addition to being our family’s only athlete, she played the trumpet and twirled the baton. So naturally, (as is often the case with impressionable younger sibs) when Paula took up twirling, I had to take up twirling too but that’s another story.
Among Paula’s most enviable skills was her ability to transform her middle-child status into an absolute art form. So much so, in fact, that Paula could have taught The Brady Bunch’s Jan a thing or two. She was the type who would sneak the younger 4-H campers down to the boys’ cabins, lead them in the front door for a “raid,” yet slip out the back door and leave the younger campers behind to get busted and take the blame.
Did I happen to mention she was their camp counselor?
Subsequently, Paula has been smart enough to play her cards pretty close to her (somewhat limited) chest and developed an admirable and inexplicable talent of invisibility that has continued to serve her well throughout her adult life.
Paula turned anonymity into power--hence the moniker, “Paula Perfect.” It’s not that she was a perfect child—she just never got caught.
To this day, no matter what the situation, Paula Gail Jones always flies under the radar.
Paula’s true passion was softball and, despite possessing virtually no athletic prowess whatsoever, I was naturally drawn to the sport as well. As a teen, Paula played on the Cogents girls’ softball team. Evidently, when forming the team, the players found the team name by randomly opening a dictionary and pointing to the first word they saw: cogent.
co·gent · adjective · having power to compel or constrain
I always loved that word. To this day, I believe in that word—I love nothing more than making cogent remarks and observations whenever possible. Of course, as a child I worshipped Paula and would have loved her team had they been called the Congeners.
con·ge·ner · noun · a chemical substance related to another.
Imagine how different this story would be if teammate Marla Opie’s finger slipped in Webster’s that day as Science was never my preferred subject. To be honest though, as this was the 70s, chemical substances were occasionally known to be part of the mix.
It was at a Cogents’ game that I got my first taste of management—or, at least, of possessing something resembling authority. On this ultimately inauspicious day, my beloved Cogents were, once again, playing their arch rivals, the Purple Martins. I despised the Purple Martins as I knew, as all hardcore Cogent fans knew, that they were pure evil and were coached by Satan himself. On some level I also knew the Purple Martins kicked Cogent ass fairly regularly too.
At today’s game, they were missing a first base umpire and no volunteers were rushing forward to fill the position.I suspect that I had to get in everyone’s face and beg for the job but, whatever the sequence of events, I eventually took my place of honor at the first base line, ready to do my duty. Of course I thought I was King Shit on Turd Island but I was also aching to prove myself in the adult world of professional athletics.
So there I stood, my characteristic wide stance presenting an appearance of both confidence and ability. Though melting from the unbearable Missouri humidity, with lines of sweat cascading down my somewhat robust pre-teen body, I could barely hide the ecstasy of standing in my new place of honor. Finally—I had POWER!
Not much happened for the first several batters—at least nothing that concerned the newly anointed first base ump. Other than the bases now being loaded, the lack of first-base activity rendered those plays as not worthy of my attention. I stood and waited for the action to come my way.
Cogents’ pitcher Jani Hoft cast a formidable stare as the next batter, Teri Samuels of the Purple Martins, sauntered confidently up to the plate.
Strike One. (Wow, it’s hot out here.)
Ball One. (I may be the youngest of three but look at me now world!)
Ball Two. (How long before we get to go to Dairy Queen? A dipped cone would be great right now…)
Strike Two. (…or perhaps iHop…)
As Jani skillfully let go another pitch, Teri grunted, as Purple Martins were prone to do, swung hard and smacked a powerful grounder to Marla Opie on Third Base.
I will never really completely know what happened at that point. But if you have ever seen teens play ball, you know that when the bases are loaded, chaos can prevail. The next thing I knew, Purple Martins could be seen running everywhere. A forced play here, a run scored there with every single Cogent seemingly having possession of the ball at some point during the play.
It all came down to Marla Opie, catching the ball again as it returned to third and forcing an approaching Teri Samuels back to Galen Sights who was waiting for her on second.
My head was spinning from all the commotion but it didn’t matter because, once again, the action had moved past my first base perch so I was in the clear.
(Yes, breakfast for dinner. I want breakfast for dinner.)
Unfortunately, NO ONE TOLD ME what happened if the play was at second base!
Imagine my surprise when Coach Duke started screaming for me to run to second to make the call. I froze. It was one of those terrifying situations where your head is telling you that you are moving but your body decides otherwise and remains cemented to the ground.
As Teri just missed mowing down skinny little Mary Hill at short stop on her way to third base, Marla lobbed the ball to Galen on second who managed to tag Teri as she steamrolled to the base.
And there I stood, planted beside first base, not having moved. Immediately I noticed that all eyes were fixated on me—players, spectators, coaches and, worst of all, Teri Samuels. Everyone was perfectly silent as the almighty first base ump—me—had their undivided attention. With the most powerful voice I could muster, I instinctively called the play:
Despite what has ever been said about me or will be said again, I’m a rule follower and always have believed in playing fair. I hated the Purple Martins but consciously cheating was not an option.
Amateur sports fans can be mean but, in this case, I’m lucky that the KOMU-TV 10 o’clock news–the future broadcasting home of my arch nemesis, Elizabeth Vargas–didn’t lead with the story: “Chubby Pre-Teen First Base Ump Massacred by Outraged Purple Martin Fans!”
Based on the less-than-positive reaction from the crowd, it was clear that I had just made my first and last call of the game.
It was on this day that I was fired for the first time.
In hindsight, I completely failed in my first attempt at being an authority and I knew it. But I took the risk and made the, albeit brief, change from spectator to the most infamous (and distracted) first base ump in Cogent softball history.
Though I was raised to fear those two small words: you’re fired; they are now music to my ears. Over the years I have been fired from being an umpire, from relationships, from part-time teen positions at a cookie bakery and a radio station, and in the mid-90s, from a junior-level sales position for Deep Pockets, Inc., a company that could easily have afforded to keep me and their promises to me.
However, the most profound of these terminations occurred a few years ago at MindZoo, the company that I now own. “Randy, you like everyone. You’d give Saddam Hussein a second chance but we’d be the ones stuck working with him.” Alas, Saddam is no longer living so I have destroyed his resume. But my employees, Kelly and Claudia, were completely correct in their assessment of my interviewing skills and absolutely within their rights to stage this professional intervention. When it came to making hiring decisions, I believe the precise term that they used was that I “sucked.”
Surprisingly, I discovered that being fired is absolutely fantastic—and liberating. Being fired means you can move past what is undoubtedly a source of often debilitating negative energy, and start a brand new chapter in your life. Being fired is an opportunity that cannot be missed or disrespected. And, best of all, I can now blame my employees for any hiring misfires.
Losing your job naturally feels terrible at the time and, understandably, emotions run wild. But the real tragedy would have been for me to miss the opportunity to learn where I truly belonged, both professionally and personally, by allowing someone else’s opinion to become a part of my spirit. As a youth, and because of my cogent Cogents experience, I learned that, above all, I was loyal.
In the spirit of “Confessional Development,” I must now acknowledge: Teri Samuels was probably safe at second base. On some unconscious level, Paula, Marla, Mary, Jani and Galen won out and my loyalty to the Cogents kicked in. It’s not like I had exactly kept my head in the game. Yes, my mind had wandered briefly to consider eggs, bacon and toast for dinner only to be rudely forced back to the present with those very same eggs metaphorically taking residence on my face.
As fate would have it, I recently crossed paths with the lovely Teri Samuels. Fair, kind, wise, forgiving Teri Samuels.
She took a firm stance, looked me squarely in the eyes and began, “Well, well, well–after all this time I have finally found that skinny little chicken-shit, blind-moron Jones kid who made that ridiculous call. The only thing that saved your Cogent-fan hide from a total flogging by this Purple Martin was that you disappeared while we had our team meeting after the game. Of course, we’re older and more mature now so I’m just going to rip you apart, use your head for batting practice and your limbs for bats. Yeah, you better keep on running–if I catch you, even your precious little Attack Bunnies won’t be able to save you.”
This actually went better than I expected…and she called me “skinny!”
During a recent visit to my Missouri hometown; me, Paula Perfect and our older sister Janice spent the day hanging out, telling stories and, of course, laughing.
For some reason during the requisite “childhood memories” part of our day, Paula mentioned something about once filling in as a Purple Martin.
Even at 47, I was shocked and somewhat appalled at this news. I had always been loyal to my beloved Cogents and my hatred for the Purple Martins never completely went away. Despite my pre-teen public ridicule, and a lifelong fear of Teri Samuel’s inevitable retaliation, here was Paula Gail Jones essentially confessing to sleeping with the enemy.
Between this shocker, and her previous pet-chicken-as-entree news, I also made an important mental note that Paula Perfect clearly possessed a lot of secrets.
As much as I have always wanted to believe in the concept of “loyalty,” especially between family and close friends, a long-feared hypothesis was confirmed that very day: one man’s loyalty is another woman’s chance to expand her resume.
Marketing guru, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.