Every organization seems to have little things about their culture that makes the place unique. At one of my former employers, this took the form of people having balls that they would toss around or bounce against the walls. This could be mildly distracting, but mostly it was a little bit of stress-relief in a pretty intense place.
The balls that people had seemed to be, in my interpretation, reflections of their personalities or what they care about. One person had a racquetball that he would bounce against the wall to relieve stress, and others had a footballs that they’d flip up in the air to themselves or toss to each other while solving the world’s problems.
I saw this pattern, and because I wanted to fit in, I decided that I too should bring in a ball. Since I’m a White Sox fan, I thought it might be cool to have a ball from the 2005 World Series, in which the White Sox had their moment of glory by winning it all for the only time in my lifetime. Seeing as how it was over a decade later, I figured that would be the right mix of novelty and personal meaning to send the right message (beyond the one that I’m a data nerd who over-analyzes things).
At that time I did not actually own a 2005 World Series baseball, so I took to the internet to see what options I might have. A cursory evaluation on Amazon and eBay showed me what I would likely need to spend. If I wanted a plain, non-game-used baseball with the 2005 logo, it was running about $50. Game-used or autographed balls went up from there. A real treasure like a Paul Konerko-signed ball was in the $350 range, and a ball signed by the entire team got obscene — into four figures.
My “brilliant” idea was seeming to be unrealistic — I mean, there was no way I was spending even $50 for this silly exercise. Though I did think it would be fun to own a 2005 World Series ball, so I went back to the internet one last time to see if I could find something, anything, that would be less expensive.
That’s when I found it:
An authentic 2005 World Series ball for only $20.
And autographed, no less!
I thought it was a typo in the listing at first, but upon closer scrutiny I realized what was going on. This ball was listed by a sports memorabilia store that traded mostly in autographed items and other interesting sports stuff that collectors pay lots of money to acquire. Everything was supply/demand based and the prices varied wildly based on how much people were willing to pay.
So you see, this is why the autographed ball was worth $20 in the market: it was signed by a Houston Astros rookie named Chris Burke. He ended up in the Major Leagues only for a handful of years, and his career ended in 2009. Not only did Houston lose the World Series in question, but it was signed by a person who most casual baseball fans would not recognize a decade later.
The Chris Burke-autographed 2005 World Series baseball may have been the best $20 I’ve ever spent. Not only did I get the ball I knew I wanted, marred slightly by a little bit of indecipherable blue ink, but I also received a bit of wisdom that continues to guide me today:
Adding energy to something is not the same as adding value.
When Chris Burke signed that ball in 2005, he certainly did not intend to decrease its market value by 60%. He reasonably thought that by scribbling on that ball, he’d be giving somebody a fine memento of a special event. Oh boy, did he ever!
Even today, that ball sits on my desk, and I often glance over at it or pick it up and toss it around while on calls or otherwise pondering some data-related challenge. It reminds me to carefully consider how my actions will result in real value, and not cause unintended negative outcomes.
I feel like too few of our data-related efforts are calibrated so cautiously. It’s not uncommon to see pointless meetings held, business glossaries go unused, standards and policies be ignored, or entire efforts stall due to ineffectiveness. We are all surrounded by folks that equate being busy to being productive, and that is simply foolish.
We each must force ourselves to think about the ball we are signing in our own work, and how all of our efforts in the data world are dependent on one another. After all, what made my autographed ball worth so much less has nothing to do with how Chris Burke signs a baseball. By all accounts, he has a fine signature — every bit as nice as Konerko’s. The value of sports memorabilia derives from the outcomes achieved on the field, often the results of the energies expended throughout an entire career.
I did not know anything about Chris Burke before finding that ball. I am sure this is not the outcome he expected to create when signing it. Certainly he did not predict that it would eventually become one of the most prized possessions of a White Sox fan. Playing several years of Major League Baseball is no failure by any measure.
But every day I sit down in my office to try to improve businesses with data, and I see that ball perched on my desk. And every day it reminds me of an important lesson that guides everything that I do:
“Don’t be Chris Burke.”
I hope that this story may help guide you, too. And until next time, go make an impact!