When I was a kid, so long ago, and playing baseball for the Seraperos de Saltillo down in the Mexican Baseball League, I learned more about making my way through the dusty arteries of life than I ever learned in college or anywhere else for that matter.
I never went to Vietnam and don't know what combat is like against men trying to kill you with essentially homemade weapons, but I learned a lot about the sturm and drang of fighting for your place in the world.
I learned that life is a struggle. There are 24 other guys on the team and half of them hate you at any one time for this reason or that. Maybe you put more wood on the ball and took someone's starting job. Maybe you inadvertently left your spikes on the bench near someone's locker and with them the detritus of dust, grass and sweat. Maybe they just didn't like that you were the manager's favorite.
Then there were the hundreds of unshaven men on the other teams who were playing this game as a living, not a lark. They knew that buckling your knees with a wicked curve or freezing you with a chin-mariachi fastball wasn't a game at all, it was a way of feeding themselves and their family.
We were in Aquascaliente playing the Rieleros. The game was theirs--or almost theirs with two down in our half of the ninth we were down by two. But then Garibay came up for us and blasted a homer bringing in "Brutus" Cesar who had walked. Those runs tied the score. Then Salome Rojas, our first sacker, who was having a career-year came up and skied one to right that went 300 feet high and 301 feet out--one foot further than the fence.
When I came up we weren't down anymore, we were leading 4-3 and their arm was pissed. With no preliminaries whatsoever he threw a curveball at mi cabeza that decided not to curve and it plunked my hard plastic helmet on the earpiece also plunking a bit of my left jaw.
I had been taught for all my 17 years to never show pain to another human, and when I got up I dusted off my pants and trotted down to first. I was beaned and pissed and knew I'd be eating dinner through a straw for three days or five.
That night, after the game, a dozen of my teammates and I went to a collection of broken wood near the stadium that the locals called a bar. It was lit solely by the green, blue and red neon of half-a-dozen cerveza signs. The Rieleros were there already when we arrived. And they, too, were pissed at losing when they should have won.
I sat in a booth with three teammates and a muscled arm came over the back of the bench I was sitting on. I pushed it back like I was in a 42nd Street moviehouse and it belonged to a pervert.
In a moment I found out the arm belonged to their pitcher, the guy who purposefully plunked me, Barrios.
In another moment we were standing chest-to-chest jawboning at volume.
I had four-inches on Barrios, but he had ten years and forty pounds on me. He had what I've always called old-man-strength. The stubbornness to exert your will on any physical obstacle no matter how big or impossible it seemed. It’s how I can roll out a carpet in my apartment by myself that it took two workmen to carry in.
I was never much of a pugilist but I learned a few things along the way about barroom brawls. 97-percent of prevailing is denying the other guy the room and leverage to slug you. Unless you're fighting Rocky Marciano, most guys need a wind-up to generate power.
So I moved in on Barrios, despite his punches, and hooked my left wing around the back of his neck, pulling him close to me like he was my catamite, not my enemy. I then rabbit punched him with my right, and when he tried to break I pushed him hard against the booth where the whole donnybrook had started. Once there I did what you do in a fair fight: I made it an unfair fight--it's too easy to get your face Picasso'd following the Marquis of Queensbury.
I kneed him twice in his reproductive arsenal.
He went down.
I didn’t stick around for ethical recriminations or allegations regarding by cowardice. I walked out of the bar and back to the rooms the Seraperos were staying in that night.
I'm thinking about a friend of mine as I write this, a friend who happens to run, very successfully, one of the better agencies in the world. A shrewd gentleman. I'm thinking about him because he's one of the few who like me understands that for all the mannerly shit people are taught to do, for all the current mania about plasticine smiles and teamwork and collaboration, nothing is as important in life and in business as the will to win.
Our time on this planet is about distinguishing yourself. About, in the parlance of our business, burying your clients' competition and making sure it's your ideas that did it.
We don't have to be bastards about it, like me that night 47 years ago, or Barrios. But we need that will.
Congeniality is great. Friendships are dear.
This is business.
We play to win.