Happy Trails An expert on office politics explains why getting fired in sports is a game of its own

December 01, 2003

"After the first death there is no other," Dylan Thomas wrote,
and that sounds pretty reasonable to anybody who never worked in
the world of sports, where things are slightly different.

Everywhere else, when someone pitches you out the window with a
pink slip between your teeth, you're going to stay fired for a
little while at least, and maybe--if you've proved yourself to be
a doofus--forever. That's how it is in corporations, where even
one $2 million party for your wife in Sardinia can get you the
kind of scrutiny that puts you at home in your Pendleton
bathrobe.

But in sports even the chronically hard to get along with don't
stay unemployed long. Keyshawn Johnson was deactivated by the
Bucs last week and within moments fans--and, no doubt,
executives--in many NFL towns were talking about wanting him on
their team. Then there are the lucky few in the Lifetime
Brotherhood of Coaches, who have as many chances at Nirvana as a
Hindu soul, with the power to move from life to life, learning
and earning as they go.

Consider the case of the Red Sox' Grady Little, who demonstrated
great public stupidity, was punished for it when Boston didn't
renew his contract and then, within days, was interviewing for
another job. "Grady Little will be fine!" he said in a statement.

Regardless of the sport the Brotherhood is a tidy, cozy family,
with internecine squabbles, for sure, but also with an underlying
assumption that no brother should be permanently consigned to
another planet. How else to explain the continued presence of
coaches such as the NHL's Mike Keenan, who two weeks ago was let
go for the sixth time? Or the NBA career of Doug Collins who was
fired on three occasions.

In real business the scene of execution can be horrendous,
fraught with fear. A friend of mine was fired by his CEO a few
years ago. The big dog, while he was doing it, became so enraged
he began screaming, his mouth wide and his gums actually
bleeding, I kid you not. "His mouth was foaming and the ridges
just above his teeth were bubbling with blood and sputum, I think
because his blood pressure was so high," said my friend. "Sadly,"
he added, "he didn't die."

In sports, meanwhile, you find the hands-off approach. Recently
vanished Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer was to have his very own
bobblehead day until the Boss called it off--not quite a firing,
but a message as clear as a cannon shot from the Master and
Commander of the wackiest ship in the navy.

Sports is a strange world where you have people like former
Nuggets coach Doug Moe who at a press conference to announce his
own firing, opened bottles of champagne and toasted his career.

Maybe the ultimate tale of a sports parting is that of Pat
Gillick, then the Blue Jays' executive vice president, cutting
loose third base coach John McLaren in 1990. It's kind of moving.
Gillick flew to Dallas for the purpose and met his putative
victim in the American Airlines Admirals Club. The meeting lasted
for hours, according to McLaren, who seemed to look back on the
incident with fondness.

Why so long a meeting? "We talked about a kid we thought would
make it, we laughed about summers in Medicine Hat, we cried,"
said McLaren, who had been an employee of the organization for 13
years, since Day One. As the tears and memories flowed, Gillick
would get up every so often and bump his flight back. At the end
the boss was done, the coach was on his way, both savoring an
experience that could only happen in the weird fantasy world of
sports.

No shame. No perp walks. Just a beautiful cosmic flow of success,
failure and rebirth. From out here in the real world, it looks
like one beautiful game.

Bing writes a business ethics column for FORTUNE. His most recent
novel is You Look Nice Today.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"Pitching for the Angels, he started a fight with my team...."
-GEORGE BRETT ON HIS LATE BROTHER KEN, PAGE 26

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)