The Support Bullpen

I am a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. Only with the Sox triumph in 2004 has that statement lost its sense of being the confession of a masochist. It’s also a strange way to open an article on customer support, but there is a connection.

In the mid ’60s when the Red Sox were a perennial 9th place finisher in a ten-team division, their one bright spot was Dick Radatz, the Monster (pronounced “Monstah” in Bostonian). He was one of the premier relief pitchers of his day, a pitcher who could bring a fast ball to the plate at 95+ miles per hour and intimidate batters the way Randy Johnson does today. Mr. Radatz’ current career is as a sports talk commentator on a local Boston radio station. In that banal medium, he’s a joy to hear because he brings as much intelligence to his insights as he did speed to his fast ball.

Frequently, he talks about how the role of the relief pitcher has changed in baseball. In his day, pitchers were starting pitchers — period — unless they weren’t good enough. Then they were “relegated” to the bullpen. The best relievers then were used far differently from today. Relievers were brought into games in the 7th or 8th inning with runners on 1st and 3rd, one out and with the heart of the opponent’s lineup coming to bat. If they got through that jam, they’d be expected to finish the game.

Dick Radatz was one not-good-enough-to-start pitcher who prospered in the bullpen. Perhaps his most storied appearance came in a Friday night game at Fenway Park in 1963, when the Sox were leading the ever-dominant Yankees by 1-0 late in the game. Radatz relieved Earl Wilson, inheriting the bases loaded, and proceeded to strike out Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard — on a total of 10 pitches. Now that’s a firefighter!

And that’s what relievers were back then: firefighters. Today, the best relief pitcher on a staff only pitches when there’s a lead to protect, and he pitches only one inning: the 9th. He starts the inning, only facing jams of his own making — or his fielders’. He’s a closer, not a firefighter.

Mr. Radatz bemoans the highly specialized nature of baseball today. The best relievers don’t pitch when their mettle would be most tested. Radatz thrived in the pressure situations, and he most respects the pitchers who want the ball in the crunch. As a baseball fan, I share his feelings, but when it comes to support service organizations, I’ll opt for the closer role.

After all, Support groups are the relief pitchers of their organizations. Their job is to make sure the company wins the game in crunch time, keeping the customer. Product marketing and design engineering are the starters, pitching the early innings of product development. Quality assurance takes over before the 7th inning stretch and, if everyone does the job correctly, there’s no need for relief at all. If relief by Support is needed, hopefully it’s as a closer, coming in to answer questions about using the product in a unique environment.

When the starters and middle relievers don’t do their jobs and the customer gets a flawed product, then Support comes in as a firefighter. The Support firefighters compensate for the poor quality of the delivered product, responding after a quick warm-up, always pitching from the stretch. Many in Support bemoan the firefighter role but I suspect many also cherish it, getting a thrill over meeting the challenge and saving the day.

Support in a closer role is evidence of a mature company. There’s cross-functional collaboration with starters sharing information with the relief corps, and the relievers sharing information in turn and helping plan the pitching strategy for the next game. In a mature company, those not good enough to open a game aren’t relegated to the Support bullpen. The Support closer position is now a positive career move.

As I watch the Red Sox tease me into thinking they might do something in the post season — besides proclaiming “wait ’till next year” — I may be nostalgic for the less specialized use of a team’s roster from years gone by, but in business let’s strive to avoid facing Maris, Mantle and Howard with the bases loaded.

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On March 16, 2005, Dick Radatz passed away from a fall in his home in Easton, Mass. But those of us who saw him pitch will always remember him fondly.