Ya Gotta Believe!

Baseball lost one of its best-loved characters in January when legendary relief pitcher Tug McGraw succumbed to brain cancer at age 59. Famous for pitching—and being—a screwball, McGraw was beloved by both the New York Mets, for whom he pitched the 1969 World Series and the 1973 National League championships, and the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he threw the closing pitch that won their first—and thus far only—World Series.

McGraw coined his famous phrase “Ya gotta believe!” during the Mets’ 1973 season, and he lived it thoroughly until the day he died. That kind of optimism—from a guy who spent his career pitching in the bottom of the ninth—kept his teammates going through good years and bad, and it kept him going almost a year longer than anyone expected. During those months, sick as he was, he still spoke in public to share his message of hope and optimism. His loss goes beyond the ballpark. In an era when many sports heroes play brilliantly on the field or court but behave badly off it, McGraw was an all-around superhero.

Though he never said it out loud, McGraw also knew that ya gotta be realistic. Despite his ebullient spirits and “never say never” outlook, he was one of the rare individuals who understood the difference between optimism and outsized expectations. Optimism is about looking forward, keeping a positive attitude, and not letting past failures hinder future efforts. It’s about giving your best, not about always getting the best. McGraw lost his share of games, but he didn’t dwell on the losses; he looked ahead to the next game. If he’d considered himself a failure because he didn’t win every game, chances are he might not have won many at all. And when he was in the bottom of the ninth in the hardest fight of his life, he forged ahead knowing that this was one game he might not be able to save.

There’s a lesson here. Holiday sales reports have been positive, particularly in the luxury sector. But jewelers who are disappointed by a mere 4% or 5% increase when they were predicting an 8% increase or more need to remember that predictions are not guarantees. One should hope for, work for, and believe that the 8% is possible. But if the result is only 5%, that’s still good news! After all, only two or three short years ago, many jewelers would have been overjoyed at a 4% or 5% holiday sales increase.

Last March, doctors predicted McGraw wouldn’t see the opening of the 2003 baseball season, but in September he stood on the mound at Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia and re-enacted his final pitch of the 1980 World Series—the one that struck out Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals and won the Series for the Phillies. Optimistic as ever, he planned to coach again at spring training 2004 and looked forward to the opening of the Phillies’ new ballpark in April, even as he acknowledged in the next breath that his cancer treatments were only buying time.

If Tug McGraw was grateful to have been granted nine more months, surely we can be happy to have achieved a respectable sales growth. The economy is only beginning to pick up steam, and if it continues at the same pace there’s no reason not to plan for even greater growth next year.

Ya gotta believe!

hschupak@reedbusiness.com