A nice thing happened yesterday. It had absolutely nothing to do with business or stocks, but I had to write about it. Hold on there, maybe it does have a single powerful thing to teach us about business, and stocks ... and life. Maybe it's the best lesson of all.
It's a baseball story.
Remembering vernal sojourns
As a youth, I had the great good fortune of being able to serve as batboy for the Minnesota Twins over bits and pieces of a few seasons. I got to go down for spring training at old Tinker Field in Orlando, Fla., where the then-hapless Twins did their vernal sojourns.
Back in those days (1982-1983), the Twins had a bunch of exciting upcoming players -- but were losing 100 games a year. Twins youngsters such as Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Frank Viola would wind up winning the World Series just five years later (1987, and again in 1991). But my own batboy days were their salad days, as Shakespeare puts it, when they were green. And so was I.
Salad-green batboys don't exactly command respect among major-league baseball players. (Maybe I benefited because my grandfather owned a piece of the team, but, actually, I don't think that mattered at all.) But there was one player who stood out to me, different from all the rest. In contrast to his peers -- who were young, strong, likeably cocky, and loved to joke around -- he was older, sadder, and wiser. He was low-key to their high-key. He was actually a rookie, but he was 30 years old and had worked his way up long and hard through the minor leagues. And he just exuded humility. My locker was right next to his -- I can still see the masking tape affixed there, "Wash" (his simple nickname) scrawled in black letters.
What made "Wash" matter
The thing about Wash was that he actually got to know my name, rather than call me "kid" or "bucko" or whatever friendly but patronizing nickname the other players used. As a 15-year-old, I could relate to him on a special level: He was only 5'11", and weighed 163 pounds -- and doggone it, I was 5'11", and weighed 163 pounds. Admittedly, I was a bit smaller back then, but you can see how he was "my guy." Indeed, to the only kid in the Twins clubhouse, he was like an uncle -- someone I could talk to, in contrast to the plucky, obnoxious older brothers the rest of the players represented. Maybe my locker was put there for a reason.
So I remember Ron Washington, a.k.a. Wash, well. The Baseball Encyclopedia will show Ron as a dependable but unspectacular weak-hitting middle infielder who batted 451 times for the Twins in 1982 -- and never got that much playing time again. He was released by the Twins during spring training of 1987 -- the year they would win it all. He left the game some years later. I didn't really follow where he went after that. To me, he had been a standout in the clubhouse. But, like most fans, I admittedly wind up spending more of my time following the standouts on the field.
Well, as of Nov. 6, 2006, Ron's now a standout on the field, too. Yesterday, Ron was named a major-league baseball manager. Following his increasingly visible presence in the third-base coaching box for the Oakland A's these past few years, the Texas Rangers tapped him to lead them back to the winner's circle. We'll see whether that happens. (I'm a big believer that general managers mean about four times as much to baseball success as team managers, so, in many ways, the Rangers' success is not completely in Ron's hands.) Before I get to my investing lesson, here's an Associated Press story quote from Ron, and from my own distant memories, boy, does it ring true:
"I'm going to be a players' manager. My job is solely to make sure that every player on the Texas Rangers feels like they are part of everything going on here," Washington said Monday night, when he was introduced at a news conference. "As a manager, I'm no good if the players don't get it done. If the players get it done, I'm great."
No bluster. No "we're going to win the championship." No "I came from such humble beginnings and I have earned this." Very little focus on the self.
You ready for the investment lesson?
You want your CEO to be Ron Washington. Any company you're invested in, if you have significant dollars on the line over a long time period, you better make sure that the qualities I experienced firsthand in Ron Washington are there in the individuals who not exactly indirectly affect your retirement. Good people don't really change. Twenty-four years later -- same guy, same perspective. Again, that is the type of person who you want running a company.
It's a powerful business and investing lesson, particularly in light of the recent options backdating scandals that have weighed on such seemingly strong companies such as McAfee (NYSE: MFE ) , Comverse Technology (Nasdaq: CMVT ) , and UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH ) . It says nothing about P/E ratios or competitive moats. It isn't everyone's approach either; Buffett -- a model CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRKb ) if there ever was one -- says he likes companies that can be run by idiots or monkeys, since sooner or later an idiot or a monkey will be managing your company. (Good line.) But an even truer truth, to me, is that Character Matters. And to the extent you can find excellent character in:
- Who runs the companies in your portfolio.
- Who you work with professionally.
- Who you marry, who you play golf with, who you pay to teach your kids.
That, dear Fools, counts for more than any dividend or P/E ratio or quarterly earnings miss. And in my own direct experience, Character Matters is what makes you rich. "Rich" in more ways than you might even think. That's one reason I own shares of companies such as Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI ) and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) , and why I recommend them to subscribers of our Motley Fool Stock Advisor service. Simply put, the CEOs at these companies take leadership and all it entails seriously.
So, fellow investor, fellow traveler in these lands, remember my Ron Washington lesson.
And: Go Ron Washington!
David Gardner is a co-founder of The Motley Fool and co-advisor of theMotley Fool Stock Advisorinvestment service. To learn more about his investment philosophy and his specific stock recommendations, click here to try Stock Advisor free for 30 days.
Whole Foods, Starbucks, and UnitedHealth are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. UnitedHealth and Berkshire Hathaway are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.