Manny Ramirez: Baseball's Most Innovative Player

In business, we focus on profits and losses. Before Manny, it was all about the Dodgers' mediocre statistics this season -- Inject a little "Manny being Manny" and it's a whole new ball game.
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Manny Ramirez and his dreadlocks have a lock on L.A. Dodgers' fans' hearts and minds, and are a shoo-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But I'd like to nominate him for one more honor: Baseball's MIP--Most Innovative Player.

No joke. I take quite seriously the meaning of innovation in its truest form--something that fundamentally changes the way people live, work, and play. For example, adding a button to a cell phone isn't innovation. But if that button turns the cell phone into a camera and that camera changes the way people record their lives and communicate with each other, then that extra button becomes innovation.

So I'm not talking about Manny's batting average or home run tally when I say he's an innovator. It's much deeper than that. What makes Manny Ramirez the most innovative player in baseball? His sense of play. Manny Ramirez has brought fun back to America's pastime and by doing that, he's changed Dodgers baseball, whether he meant to or not.

You see it in his trademark dreadlocks, now replicated on souvenir Dodgers caps. You see it in the reports of teammates grooving to Manny's salsa in the locker room, despite the Dodgers' ban on music in the club house. And in the way the Dodgers sold 20,000 extra tickets in a matter of hours when the fans heard that the slugger was on his way to Southern California.

Serious Fun

You can never underestimate how important fun is to innovation. I definitely do my best creative thinking while mountain biking or surfing, and we all know that Ben Franklin discovered the source of lightning by flying a kite. If it weren't for Steve Jobs taking a calligraphy class decades ago--right after dropping out of college--we probably wouldn't have a choice of fonts on our personal computers today. Likewise, when a couple of University of Southern California students first conceived a way to connect with their favorite bands, for fun, little did they know their notion would turn into MySpace, attract a quarter of a billion users and redefine how the Internet is used to connect people with each other.

In most workplaces, it can be easy to dismiss the element of fun because we're focused on serious stuff. But in 1948, Swiss mountaineer George de Mestral hit the trail and noticed the burrs stuck to his dog's coat. He looked at the burrs under a microscope, and that's when his idea struck. People laughed and thought it was silly. But he ignored the skeptics and invented a new two-sided fastener, Velcro.

But in business, we focus on profits and losses. In school these days, we emphasize scores more than creative activities. Before Manny, it was all about the Dodgers' mediocre statistics this season. Inject a little "Manny being Manny" and it's a whole new ball game, even if L.A. doesn't win the World Series.

Bucking Authority

Behind any great innovation, there's an irritant. For better or worse, Manny does that well, too. He rejects authority and breaks the rules, like turning Joe Torre's haircut order into a playful negotiation. Of course, trying to get Manny to cut off his dreads is like telling Steve Jobs that the iPhone needs to have a keypad. It's precisely because innovators break the rules that their innovations lead to big leaps for society.

The key for corporate America is to embrace the irritant, while the challenge for innovators is to turn irritation into inspiration.

The Boston Red Sox traded Manny because they couldn't take his shenanigans anymore. Manny has said that he wanted to leave Boston because he was looking for "peace." Jeopardizing a $20 million annual paycheck just to find a little peace? How many of us would have taken that risk? Only the true innovators would dare, because innovators play fearlessly, as if they have nothing to lose.

But as it turns out, the risk has turned into reward for the player. Los Angeles is the perfect place for Manny. L.A. is fun-loving, quirky, and appreciative of the spirit of play. After all, this is the city that's fully embraced innovations from skateboarding to margaritas.

It's too early to tell Manny's long-term impact on Dodgers baseball. Certainly we can expect him to test everyone's patience from time to time. But so far he's helping unite this diverse and eclectic city behind a sports team in a way that we haven't been united in years.

And so, Manny, I toast your arrival in Los Angeles--with a margarita, of course.

This article originally appeared in Businessweek.

Krisztina "Z" Holly is the Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Southern California and Executive Director for the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. She was "traded" from Boston to L.A. two years ago.

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