How the Royals Ended the Season the Right Way

From left: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustaka, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escober wave to fans as they exit the game together perhaps for the final time on Oct. 1, 2017. Photo by John Sleezer.

The 2017 Kansas City Royals won’t be remembered for another epic postseason run as they did in 2014 and 2015. No, this year’s team fell just short of making the playoffs, and even short of finishing with a .500 record, concluding with a record of 80 wins and 82 losses. However, this year will still be remembered for something else special with this club; it is likely the final year the team’s “core four” players will be in uniform in Royal blue: first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, and shortstop Alcides Escobar.

Together, these players represented the Royals in 3,847 games, five All Star game appearances, one All Star game MVP (Hosmer, 2016), four Gold Glove (fielding) awards, two American League Championship Series MVP awards (Cain, 2014; Escobar, 2015), two American League Pennants, and one precious World Series Championship.

The team could have tried “selling off” players in free agency earlier in the season, but wanted to give this group one last chance to have a memorable postseason run. That playoff push never fully materialized and as the season neared its end, fans, players and the organization knew this could very well be the end of an era that brought a Major League Baseball championship back to Kansas City, 30 years after its first.

While many teams – and companies – go through reorganizations, rightsizing, or personnel shifts, there are many ways to handle it. Sometimes fans and employees see it coming; sometimes they don’t. Emotions can be raw, feelings can be hurt, and reputations can be damaged. However, the Royals knew when this season ended, it could not afford to keep these core players intact. Instead of hiding that fact, they were honest about, which led to three valuable takeaways that eased the transition for the organization, their fans, and even the players:

  1. Keeping it Real:” While a slang term meaning “to be honest and do the right thing,” this was the first step the Royals successfully took in setting up expectations for all involved. They were honest about the likelihood – or lack thereof – of being able to retain all of these players when their contracts were up at the end of this season. While hard news to take, by never concealing that fact and “doing right” by the players by making the moves during the season to give them the best chance at another postseason, this was an easier pill to swallow. Players and fans alike appreciated all efforts were exhausted to set them up for success, while being realistic about the future. All an employee can ask for is the resources provided to do well in their job, even if their future is uncertain.
  2. Setting the Stage: With expectations set from the first step above, while bittersweet, the organization could begin planning for the future, while cherishing the players in the final year of their contracts. The players could then savor their potential last year together while anticipating a reward for all players, free agency, and the chance for them to receive the largest contracts of their careers. The fans could also plan on seeing these players for the last time as Royals, aiding in any potential closure they needed with this upcoming change.
  3. Sentimental Sendoff: With everyone in the stadium and city knowing what the last game of the season meant, each of the players received a standing ovation during when they came to the plate for their at bats. With recognition routinely being the one attribute employees value most, the Royals “core four” received that from their fans and employer. It was made even sweeter when Hosmer belted a first-inning home run under the adulation. Then, in the fifth inning, the players were subbed off, receiving a final “thank you” from fans, and able to leave the field together, under a thunderous standing ovation from their fans. 

Personnel transitions rarely go as smoothly as how the Royals were able to handle the end of this year. Had they not been sniffing around the playoff picture all year, they could very likely have moved these players earlier, negating this seemingly perfect sendoff during the last game. Conversely, companies rarely have the chance to have such a sendoff for any of its employees. It may occur only when an employee retires or maybe a farewell happy hour if an employee chooses to move on to a new opportunity, and is still in good standing with the organization.

But in today’s hyper-critical world, it was nice to see one example of everyone understanding the realities of the situation, embracing (rather than ignoring or concealing) inevitable change, and doing their best to recognize the accomplishments of its employees while all look ahead to the future.

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No Fluke, Just a Winning Formula

KC Star-Royals-John Sleezer

Photo by John Sleezer, KC Star

The Kansas City Royals – yes the same team that were consistent 100-game losers less than 10 years ago – are your World Series Champions.

In fact, in the past two years, they have won two American League Championships, their first-ever Central Division title, and a World Series title. They have also increased their win total in each of the past six years and set a new attendance record in 2015. Not to mention, seeing Jimmy Fallon and a rapping Bret Saberhagen, shooting paintballs at Jimmy Kimmel, and having Paul Rudd celebrate with them in the locker room. So yeah, things are pretty good for the Kansas City Royals and their fans.

In the midst of this upward trajectory, the Royals have done some incredible things on the biggest stages, namely in the playoffs.

As noted by The Kansas City Star, eight of their 11 playoff wins this year came after trailing in the sixth inning or later. Six of those comebacks have erased deficits of two runs or more. No team has ever done that, or had ever accomplished the following in the playoffs:

  • They came from behind to win eight times
  • They came back from multiple-run deficits seven times
  • They scored 51 runs in the seventh inning or later
  • They won three World Series games that they trailed in the eighth inning

“Of all the crazy Royals’ numbers, this might be the best,” EPSN baseball analyst Buster Olney pointed out. “KC scored 40 runs this postseason 8th inning/later; no other team had more than 5.”

While most teams were winding down, the Royals were just warming up.

Outside of the team stats, they also featured some individual notes with having the first Brazilian-born player to play in a World Series (Paulo Orlando), the first player to make their Major League debut in a World Series (Raul A. Mondesi), and the player who captured the record for the longest single postseason hitting streak in MLB history at 15 games (Alcides Escobar).

This was not only a memorable World Series win, but it was an especially historic one, for a team that had been historically bad. While the team has captivated and re-engaged a city starving for a championship from its football (it’s been 40 years) and baseball (it had been 30 years) teams, there were also some key communications takeaways that any team – or organization – can learn from as it builds a winning culture of its own:

1. Find What Works for You: The Royals developed a team and a way of playing baseball that best fit 1) what they could afford 2) what fit their players’ abilities and 3) what best fit their ballpark. The result were mid-market contracts that featured players with speed, athleticism, and defense that combined with starting pitching bolstered by the best bullpen in baseball.

For your organization, you may not have the biggest payroll or be in the biggest market, but focus on the strengths of your people and what you do really well. Who knows, how you do it may change the way the game is played…just like the Royals.

2. Trust Your People: Manager Ned Yost trusted his players and let them play without fear, such as Eric Hosmer’s daring dash home in Game 5. But the Royals also trusted the fans and their support, as highlighted with their “Thank You Kansas City” shirts and credit in celebration speeches during their championship rally.

Whether it be players on the field or people in your company’s positions, show them you believe and trust in them, and they’ll deliver the results you need…sometimes even ones you never saw coming, like an improbable slide across home plate.

3. Never Give Up: The records I list above are all the evidence we need that this team never quit and always believed they would find a way to win. In a game known for its numbers, the Royals showed all it takes is a belief in oneself and one team to suddenly tip the odds in your favor.

Personally I’ve been in situations where on paper, there was seemingly no way to accomplish a project in a timeframe provided. For example, I learned of a myriad of projects that needed to be completed – including some that had never been done by the company before – as it prepared to go public in just 13 days. Guess what? We made it happen. Not because we thought it was impossible – okay, maybe a little bit – but because we rallied to the challenge and believed in ourselves to get it done.

This Kansas City Royals team will be remembered for many things: the way they played, the connection with their city, and the way they always found a way to win. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons they captivated their audiences was simple: by doing those three things above, they were just like us.