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Friday, October 21, 2011

Joe Mauer, Malcolm Gladwell & Bill Gates: Success and a Confluence of Events

I read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers several months ago. As with most of his other stuff, I enjoyed his analysis on the extent to which circumstance factors into success. Among other examples throughout the book, Gladwell focused on Microsoft's Bill Gates. I don't know much about computers, and I know nothing about computer programing, but I do know that Bill Gates is generally considered a genius and/or a pioneer of the personal computer. How did he get there? Sure, he was smart and had a knack for computer programming. But I'm many other kids were just as smart, or smarter, and were "gifted," if you want to use that word, when it came to technology and the burgeoning computer industry, and the majority of those other kids just ended up with normal careers. Apart from his level of genius, was there anything different about Bill Gates in particular?

Gladwell reveals a few interesting thing about Gates that factored, perhaps to a significant extent, into his eventual success: First, when Gates was in high school, his school happened to have recently purchased a new and extremely expensive computer, and actually had in place a computer club, both of which were extremely rare for the time. Second, Gates had extensive access to the University of Washington's computer lab, where he reportedly logged some 10,000 hours programming computers by the time he turned 20. When Gates was asked how many individuals had as much computer experience in the 1970s as Gates did, his response was, "if there were 50 in the world, I'd be stunned." Gladwell's point, expressed much more convincingly and eloquently than I could re-write it, is essentially that for Gates and many other extremely successful (rich and famous?) people, circumstance and timing were a factor in the mix; not that circumstance and timing were predominant, or more important than intelligence and effort, but that they did indeed play a role. As food for thought, Gladwell also noted that Gates, Steve Jobs and Sun Microsystems' famous computer scientist Bill Joy were within a year or two of each other.

So what does this have to do with Minnesota Twins baseball and Joe Mauer? Well, there's no direct correlation, of course. I haven't read anywhere that Joe Mauer had unique access to baseball training facilities, though I'm sure he did. And he wasn't born at an especially important time in the development of the sport of baseball. I was just thinking, though, of the confluence of events that brings us, and Joe Mauer, to the present day Minnesota Twins.

Two major things stand out: First, Joe Mauer was born in 1983, and participated in the MLB amateur draft in 2001. In 2000, the Twins finished last in baseball with a 69-93 record, and, accordingly, "earned" the fist overall pick in the 2001 draft. Between 2001 and 2011 -- thanks to generally competitive teams and the dividends of drafting early in the first round of the late 1990s -- the Twins did not draft earlier than 14th (That all changes, as we know, in 2012, when the Twins draft 2nd overall). So Joe Mauer was a Minnesota native, and was already a household name (at least among households where prep sports were followed), when he was draft-eligible, and his hometown team held the #1 pick in that year's amateur draft. As we all know, the Twins selected Mauer (over other notables such as Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira), and the rest is history. Simply stated, as when he connects on a 95 MPH fastball, Mauer's timing (more accurately, his parents' timing) with respect to his age couldn't have been better when it is compared ot the Twins' circumstances in 2001.

The second thing that stands out to me is the role that Target Field has played in Joe Mauer's Twins career -- or maybe it should be more accurately stated as the role that Joe Mauer played in helping the Twins secure Target Field? Or, maybe most accurately, it should simply be stated that the two are intertwined. In 2002, the threat of contraction loomed over the team, even as they played winning baseball on their way to the first of 3 consecutive Central Division titles. Now, of course a lot of ugly politics went into securing Target Field, but the fact that the team won 4 Central crowns in 5 years -- with Mauer playing an important role the final 2 of those years -- after having sucked for the better part of the previous decade, was important. The rest is history, really. Mauer became a very famous and well-paid All-Star, and the Twins got Target Field. And now we have Mauer for at least 7 more seasons, and probably for the rest of his career.

Mauer's connection, in my opinion, with Galdwell's Outliers, concerns Mauer's timing. To say the least, it was very good (up until 2011 and bilateral leg weakness, that is). The story in Minnesota might be a little different if the team was just a little better in 2000, and accordingly missed the first or second overall pick in the draft. Now, Mauer didn't play on the big league team in 2002 and 2003, so we can't credit him for the success of those teams, but 2004-Present is on his shoulders, good and bad. What if the Twins took Mark Prior or Mark Teixeira instead? Or Dewon Brazelton, who was the third overall pick and heralded by Peter Gammons as the second coming of Roger Clemons? What if the Twins hung onto AJ Pierzynski and didn't ship him off to San Francisco in exchange for Joe Nathan (and Boof Bonser)? What if the winning stopped after the 2003 season with no Mauer around which to build the nucleus of a team that was very competitive from 2004 until this past season? Would we have Target Field now? Maybe. Probably. At the least, it's an interesting question. And Mauer certainly benefited from Target Field. Without it, there is no doubt that the Twins would not have been able to afford his $23 million salary without gutting the rest of the team. Mauer's timing in arriving in 2004 on a good team, in later becoming the face of that team, and in later using that success (and the increased revenue from Target Field) to his advantage when negotiating a contract, again is nearly perfect (for the record, I have no doubt that Mauer, even if he had been drafted by another team, would have become an All-Star and MVP candidate, but it certainly is interesting to think -- sort of in an "A Christmas Carol" sort of way -- about what might have happened in the Twins' past, present and future).

Bill Gates had access to a computer lab, a new and expensive computer in his high school, and even was in a computer club -- all at a time when such things were relatively rare. It helped him become who he is. Joe Mauer had the fortune of being from Minnesota, and being draft-eligible the last time his home team had the #1 overall pick in the draft. Mauer was also placed onto a pretty darn good team in 2004. The Twins' play on the field in those pivotal years made the prospect of contraction difficult, especially when the other team to be contracted was the lowly Montreal Expos. Building upon on the success of those good teams into the Twins' new home at Target Field, Mauer was able to secure a "market rate" contract to stay with his team, a contract that would have mathematically been impossible for the Twins to offer had they stayed in the Metrodome. For Joe Mauer, certainly there is a unique athletic talent. Heck, I very well could be writing the same article about whatever NFL team Mauer was quarterbacking. But it would be remiss, in any full "study" of Mauer's professional career, to fail to note the incidents of circumstance and timing that factor into his professional life story.

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