Commencement 2005 - Tom Werner
Tom Werner, Partner, Carsey-Werner LLC and Chairman, Boston Red Sox
Saturday, May 21, 2005
When Dr. Hart invited me to speak to you today, I called up my good friend Bill Cosby and asked him for some advice on giving commencement speeches—especially because he’s given about a zillion of them. Bill told me “Tom, keep it short and let ‘em go party. They’re not gonna listen to you anyway.” His comment reminds me of what Henry VIII was reputed to have said to each of his six wives, “I won’t keep you long.”
It is a tremendous honor for me to be here this morning. In fact, I was asked by the University to park at the West Edge parking lot and arrive there by 6:00 a.m. so I wouldn’t be late.
I have a number of connections to UNH, including that my television partner for almost 30 years, Marcy Carsey, is on the board of directors of the UNH Foundation. We’re very competitive with each other. When I was buying the Boston Red Sox, she bought the Three Chimneys Inn, one mile from here. Her payroll is a lot less than mine, I can tell you that.
Marcy has regaled me with stories about the traditions at UNH. One of my favorites is the now renowned Durham 500, for which the New England Sports Network that we manage is trying to buy the rights. Another of my favorite traditions is the Greek god contest sponsored by the sisters of Kappa Delta. Yet none is more sacred than your hallowed tradition where a dead fish is thrown on the ice after your first goal in a hockey game. I tried that at Fenway and hit Johnny Damon with a sock eye salmon. It didn’t get quite the same response.
Today marks an important achievement in each of your lives, and I want to congratulate you. I believe your experience at UNH will serve as the foundation of knowledge that you need in life.
But let me start my address today speaking to your parents as someone myself who has sat through two college graduations for my own children.
Where are you, parents? Raise your hands. Now how many of you secretly feel your kid is not only a hard-core unemployable but they may not be able to even find their way to the car after graduation!! So this is my advice to you—chill out. Let your children measure success by their own standards, not yours.
I spent a lot of my young adulthood watching Red Sox games on television, and my parents thought that was a complete waste of time.
To those graduating today, I want to tell you about a recent study regarding the Harvard Business School class of 1949. This was a stunningly successful group of leaders which included presidents of lots of important companies. However, many of them felt that they had been “harmed” by the notion that unless they were number one, that they had not quite made the grade. Too much of life is spent unhappy that you are not someone else. The person graduating on your right today may catch a hockey puck better than you; the woman on your left may do better in science; the guy behind you may be more popular; the girl in front of you plays a mean violin. But I am here to tell you that the people you emulate may turn out to be dorks, and that the bullies and toadies who may have irritated you at UNH will soon be helping you at the DMV.
Furthermore, history is filled with examples of people who stumbled for a long, long time before finding personal and professional success. Lincoln was a mediocre lawyer and a lousy congressman; Sam Walton didn’t create Wal-Mart until he was in his late 50s, and even the immortal Babe Ruth had a lousy year—1925—when he was playing for the Yankees, at which time he was almost written off.
I learned a whole lot in my life but I often go back to ideas discussed at college for inspiration. My four years there taught me that you could make business decisions born out of love, and often the right course is the one that other people question. In fact, it is not only all right but healthy to be contrarian.
I was the only roommate in my dormitory to eschew going to graduate school. Instead I accepted A $110 a week job at ABC. Later on, after a very successful career at that network in which Marcy and I discovered Tom Hanks and Robin Williams and helped create a bunch of hit shows, we left that plush nest to start up an independent production company with no guaranteed income. We traded in corner offices with lots of perks for an office with no air conditioning above a sneaker store.
Yet that decision led us to co-create the “Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “Third Rock from the Sun,” “That 70’s Show,” and a bunch of other half hour comedies. While they all may have seemed obvious in retrospect, all these endeavors were questioned at their inception and in fact every network turned down the “Cosby Show” when we pitched it.
It was during this period, in the 1990’s, when I decided to buy a baseball franchise, the San Diego Padres. And boy did I have headaches in San Diego, and not just because Roseanne, our employee, sang the National Anthem at a Padres game off key. In fact, when I was at my lowest point in popularity, there was a guy outside the stadium every night with a sign that said, “Honk if you hate Tom Werner.” And because I didn’t want him to recognize me, I honked whenever I drove in.
But what a great teaching experience running the Padres turned out to be. Not only did I learn from my mistakes, but I also made some recommendations which would later directly affect the Red Sox. Serving as the chairman of major league baseball’s television committee, I was an early champion of the idea to increase the number of teams in the playoffs from four to eight. I believed this would increase fan interest in more cities in September and have a beneficial effect on ratings. That idea, which wasn’t all that popular at the time, led to today’s wild card format, the very format that allowed the Boston Red Sox last season to win their first championship since 1918.
The Boston Red Sox. Look, I know it’s not a matter of life or death—it’s far more important than that.
When we first were awarded the franchise three years ago, my partners John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and I sat down before our first press conference and sketched a kind of mission statement. We thought there were fundamental obligations of ownership. They included not just the commitment to field a competitive team but also a promise that we would become active participants in initiatives to assist people throughout New England. As proud as I am that we achieved one of our goals—winning a World Series after an eight decade drought, I am equally proud of the Red Sox Foundation we created, which has quickly become the largest professional baseball philanthropy in the nation—donating already over $9 million since we came in to hundreds of New England charities, with pledges for an additional $10 million to be distributed in the next few years.
One of the greatest pleasures I get from my job is the joy I get talking to players from time to time. They often give me insight into ideas that even come in handy at Commencement time. And for pure wisdom, no one beats Yogi Berra. After all, this is a guy who once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Yogi once saw a group of people running across a baseball diamond stark naked. Asked to describe it, he said, “I don’t know if they were naked men or women. They all had bags over their heads.”
I had the occasion to also have dealings with the great Ricky Henderson when he was on the Red Sox. This is a guy who talks about himself mostly in the third person. In fact, when he got in touch with us to see if there was a roster spot on the team, he said on the phone, “This is Ricky Henderson calling on behalf of Ricky Henderson.” But then again, this wasn’t surprising. Ricky had often said to friends that his best tour of duty was in New York City. Because, and I quote Ricky here, “I have a view, from my penthouse, of the entire state building.”
Ricky and I had lunch with Larry Lucchino one day around the time that Ken Caminetti was featured in an article in Sports Illustrated about steroid use. It got enormous coverage because Caminetti said that 50 percent of all major league players take steroids. I asked Ricky if that figure was accurate. “No way that figure is correct,” Ricky responded. “I don’t take steroids, so that’s 49 percent right there.” No UNH mathematics professor could argue with his logic.
Returning to the Red Sox, our 2004 season was nothing short of incredible. When we were down three games to none against the Yankees, and with Mariano Rivera staring us down in the 9th inning of Game 4 with a 4-3 lead, our head of communications came up to our box to talk to John, Larry, and me about what we should say to the media.
By the way, overall it had been a very positive season. We had won almost 100 games, we had beaten the Angels in the Division series, and yet once again we had been vanquished by the Yankees, and what was worse, getting swept in four straight games. Larry Lucchino jotted down some themes for us to consider on a yellow legal pad, such as our determination to one day conquer the Evil Empire, and that this stinging defeat would only make us more focused to do so.
As we were rehearsing our ideas, Kevin Millar walked, Dave Roberts stole second base, and Bill Mueller singled home the tieing run.... The game was extended until the twelfth inning when David Ortiz homered and we lived to play a fifth game. So the yellow legal pad went back in the drawer.
The next night, down 4-2 in the eighth inning, our PR vice president returned and we pulled out the pad again. At least we could say to the press that we hadn’t been swept. But the team came back again, this time six outs from elimination, and after a David Ortiz single in the 14th inning, our victory forced a sixth game to be played in New York—so the legal pad with our notes to the media returned again to its drawer.
No baseball team in history had ever won a playoff series down by three games. But, as you all know, we went on to defeat the Yankees in New York, and then won a remarkable four games in a row against the Cardinals, making it eight straight wins from the brink of elimination.
At the end of it all, after the parade, I asked Larry where that legal pad with our notes was. He told me that Doug Mankiewicz had taken it along with the ball.
So the story of the 2004 Red Sox transcended baseball. Not only had we finally eradicated the Curse of the Bambino, after 86 years, but we inspired non-baseball fans, who stare down challenging odds to defeat obstacles in their own lives.
And thus Yogi Berra was right after all. We could chisel his observation in Latin on Thompson hall. Tu, cum in trivium venis, carpe id. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Or to say it in another way, and I quote Anna Quindlen here, “Begin with that most frightening of all things, a clean slate. And then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer. Because they are what I want.” Listen to that small voice inside of you that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian, to go another way. George Elliot wrote, "it is never too late to be what you might have been." It is never too early either.
Most of you know the story of Icarus, the boy who wanted to fly so badly that he made himself wings out of feathers and wax. His father warned him not to fly too high or the sun would melt his wings.
Well, Icarus couldn’t resist—you see, parents, they never do listen to you—and he flew higher and higher until the sun did melt the wax on his wings and he crashed to Earth.
Now the moral of this story is generally thought to be, "Don’t fly too high, or reach too far, lest you fall."
But I’m telling you that interpretation of the story was never how I comprehended it. I’m here to tell you—fly as high, reach as high, as you possibly can. Just make sure you have the right equipment.
Before closing, I wanted you to know I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare of late. The great English playwright is always someone to go to for insight. Now, before this year, I had the general impression that baseball is a little over a hundred and fifty years old, and that Abner Doubleday had invented it. Imagine my surprise to know Shakespeare was a great baseball fan and it was he who first wrote about baseball.
For example, In Anthony & Cleopatra, (Act 2, Scene 5) he wrote:
“My arm is sore.”
In Macbeth, (Act 1, Scene 1) he wrote:
“Fair is foul and foul is fair.”
Taming of the Shrew (Act 2, Scene 1):
“You may go walk.”
In Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 2):
“A hit, a very palpable hit!”
In Henry V (Act 5, Scene 2):
“And so I shall catch the fly.”
In Julius Caesar (Act 5, Scene 1):
“O hateful Error.”
In Henry VIII (Act 3, Scene 2)
“You have scarce time to steal.”
And finally in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2):
“I have no joy in this contract.”
And on that note, I bid you “Adieu.” Now go out and party.