October 10, 2007

Star-struck out

Oops.Pity the poor Yankees. All that money and talent yet again under-achieving as a whole. Heads will roll! is the well worn annual decree from the team’s idiotic meddlesome owner, George Steinbrenner, who has probably never played an inning of baseball in his puff, as they say in East Kilbride.

The Yankees’ formula for success is typically one where they attract the best talent with money. To the team’s credit, it can afford a $210 million annual player payroll, with canny marketing, television licensing rights, merchandising and perennial sell-out crowds. The team makes it to the post-season, but more often than not can’t manage to get to the World Series, let alone win it. When will they learn?

We see that misguided strategy backfire all the time, and the pipe band world is no exception. The concept of an “all-star” band is familiar to most. At any given time there are probably a dozen serious attempts around the world to consolidate the best members of various bands to create a super-group that’s sure to achieve competition glory. When it actually happens, some success will be reached but, more often than not, it crumbles in a heap after a few years.

In the late 1960s the Invergordon Distillery company set out to create a super-band, offering money to the best of Scotland’s pipers and drummers to play with a new Grade 1 band. Donald Shaw-Ramsay was the Joe Torre responsible for managing the talent and producing the prizes. Legendary figures like John D. Burgess, John MacDougall, Alex Duthart and Bert Barr joined the band, which enjoyed good competitive success for a few years. It never managed to win the World’s, which was of course the ultimate goal. The “experiment” (as it’s often referred to) eventually failed, Invergordon pulled its financial backing, and the band is nothing more than a memory.

While all that was going on the Edinburgh City Police was dominating with less famous talent that had been together for many years.

The Power of Scotland Pipe Band of the 1980s is probably comparable. This band had more gold in its ranks than Flava Flav has in his collection of grills, with the solo luminaries like Pipe-Major Angus, Willie McCallum, Roddy MacLeod, Peter Hunt and Ronnie McShannon populating the circle. It was led by the venerable Harry McNulty. The band had a lot of fun trips around the world, was dressed to the nines and always had the most luxurious coach. To be sure it was a very, very good band, but it never seemed to achieve the competition success that its personnel would indicate was possible. All those brilliant players, but no World Championship. Nice guy managing all-star players. Sounds familiar.

Similar to the Invergordon example, “The Power” was trying to compete against the Strathclyde Police, a band made up largely of non-soloists who had played and worked together for many years.

There’s a lot to be said for community and camaraderie in pipe bands. In fact, I would say that those intangible qualities are just as important as actual playing ability. There’s usually something about a band made up of players who really like and know each other that comes through in quality and success. Most importantly, bands comprising players who want to do well for the guys around them even more than they want success for themselves personally is an indicator of greatness. I have a lot of thoughts about the current and increasing trend of bringing in “travellers” – hot-shot pipers and drummers who attend a few practices and only the most important competitions and how it can impact a band overall. I’ll save those for another day.

But these days, another Yankees failure only serves as a reminder that all-stars do not a great team make.




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