The robot builder who helps run the Boston Red Sox


(Charles Krupa/AP)
April 5, 2012

This piece is part of an ongoing On Leadership series profiling both prominent and less visible figures in sports leadership.

For Tim Zue, baseball was always more than just the fun of bat to ball, ball to glove. It was a sort of mathematical poetry, a numerical masterpiece, a geometric puzzle to be solved.

And as a VP for Fenway Sports Management and director of business development for the Boston Red Sox, Zue’s path to front-office executive in the Major Leagues was as unconventional as it is inspiring.

Watching the ball

Zue grew up 10 miles north of Boston, and followed all the hometown teams. He played sports throughout his childhood, living out the on-field triumphs of his pro heroes, but as he says: “The Red Sox, for whatever reason, we’re always my number one passion.” He remembers staying up late to watch game six of the 1986 World Series. He was only a young boy, but Zue vividly remembers “watching the ball go through Buckner’s legs” and the disappointment that followed. 

Last robot standing

If there was one thing that trumped the importance of the Boston Red Sox throughout Tim Zue’s childhood, it was MIT. The Zues lived and breathed Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  “Both my parents work at MIT; both my older brothers went to MIT; my mom got her undergraduate, master’s and PhD from MIT; my dad got his PhD from MIT,” Zue says. “The joke with my parents is that when I was born they were wearing an MIT sweatshirt, looked in the mirror and there was my name, TIM.”

He was valedictorian of his high school, only applied to one school (guess where), became a mechanical engineering major, and soon accomplished something that would keep his name etched in the history books of the school his family so loved. Zue won one of the most competitive displays of engineering brainpower in the world, famously known as the 2.70 Robot Competition at MIT.

If you’ve watched the old PBS telecasts or walked through the exhibit at the MIT museum, you know that every year the sophomore mechanical engineering students participate in a class-cum-competition: Every student receives the same starting materials and must build a robot that can compete at a specific task. Robots are pitted against one another to see which can complete the task most effectively, and the last robot standing wins. Zue’s robot won. He was flown to Japan to compete internationally for three weeks, and will forever hold the title of 1997 champ.

MIT to the Red Sox

So, here’s a Boston guy who grew up in love with hometown sports, was raised in an academically privileged family, went on to MIT, and essentially won a gold medal in what some would consider the Nerd Olympics. You’d expect him to break into tangents about Einstein and Galileo, offer up unsolicited math facts, and brag about the backroom tour he got at Microsoft. But Zue is about as non-geeky as you get. He acts the part of pro-sport exec — well dressed, tanned, clean-cut and direct. So how does this promising engineer go from MIT to the Red Sox?

Naturally, he looks for a career where he can flex his analytical muscles while being in a more social environment, settles on consulting for a couple of years, and then becomes an inner-city schoolteacher. Of course.

Like many in his generation, Zue developed his career by following one interest to the next — and by putting to work his multiple talents, his technological savvy and his belief in community. It was over one summer, while on vacation from his school-year job teaching eight-grade math, that he landed on a particular idea he couldn’t shake: “How cool would it be to work for the Red Sox as an intern?”

A valuable summer addition

Zue had already been thinking more about his passion for the Red Sox while teaching in Boston, and his free summers seemed to catalyze the idea. “I didn’t grow up my whole life wanting to work in sports. I was always a huge sports fan, and I think in the back of my mind it would have been an incredible dream to work for the Red Sox, but I never really thought of it as a reality.”

He did some homework, contacted the internship coordinator and was told, sorry, there’s nothing available. 

So what did he do? He blind-emailed the CEO, Larry Lucchino, guessing on his email address, and made the case for why he’d be a valuable summer addition: He would work for free, had a useful background in business analytics, and was passionate about the organization. He piqued Lucchino’s interest. In 2003, Zue took an unpaid summer internship with no desk, the agreement that he would leave after one month if it wasn’t working, and positively no promise of future work.

Gut-busting stamina

Zue worked with the pep of a peanuts vendor and the precision of, well, an MIT grad. He was focused and driven, and began collecting data on turnstiles and concession sales. He reported that beer sales at Saturday night games were worth thousands of dollars more than a day game, and certain gates needed more turnstiles to maximize the flow of stadium traffic while others needed less. (And what do you know? They soon moved turnstiles and adjusted the following year’s schedule for more Saturday night games.)

He was quickly recognized for his unique blend of savvy skill and gut-busting stamina. “On the business side, there was not someone here at the time that analytically said, ‘I want a giant spreadsheet, and I want to make sense of it.’” Zue was eventually offered a part-time job — meaning he would teach until 3 pm, and then work at Fenway until 9 or 10 o’clock.  By the end of the school year, he was offered a fulltime gig.

Zue is now part of nearly every business decision made at Fenway, from ticket prices to game-day experiences. He didn’t quit and wasn’t afraid of the menial jobs en route to being given bigger responsibilities. Now Zue is not only living out his dream of being a part of his favorite franchise, he’s also in a position to grant other people small wishes and hopes. 

Once a family with two young children had standing-room tickets asked his opinion for a prime spot to stand. Zue asked if they had a minute, and then returned in no time with four front-row tickets. Days later he received a letter, thanking him and explaining that the trip was a sendoff for the father, a serviceman who was being deployed.

Maybe Zue was lucky with his timing, maybe blessed for the education and family he was born into, and maybe just a hard worker who refuses to back down from a challenge or setback. And maybe he’s also an ordinary guy you never heard of, who’s proving that great things can be done with a little effort, a little patience and the commitment to never forsake those dreams.

Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of the forthcoming book Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them with comments, or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

More from On Leadership:

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life

Basketball’s misguided one-and-done rule

Your advice for a bad boss

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