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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What to Say When the Worst Happens

Photo by John Sleezer, K.C. Star

Yordano Ventura. Photo by John Sleezer, K.C. Star

Yesterday was a stark reminder that every day is not promised; rather it should be cherished. Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, just 25 years old, who went from high school dropout to millionaire World Series winner, died in a car crash on Sunday, Jan. 22 in his home country of the Dominican Republic.

Shock, disbelief, perhaps denial, but definitely sadness is being felt by anyone that knew him, felt like they knew him, or had any connection to him. A player who many felt his best years were still ahead of him, despite a meteoric rise the past two years. A player who many middle-aged people thought should learn to mature, (although how mature were many of us at 24 and 25 years of age?). A player affectionately nicknamed “Ace” (for the movie character Ace Ventura) whose smile warmed a room and melted any doubt that he was having fun playing the game of baseball.

When something like this happens to your team, to your company, or to your organization, what do you do? When do you it? How do you do it? But the most important question of all is: What do you say when the worst happens?

In a time of reeling emotions, it’s best to focus on just four words in preparing a response: let the heart lead.

That’s what many of Ventura’s teammates did in their reactions (see here and here), and what the Royals organization did in their initial response. They emblazoned their scoreboard (aka Crown Vision) with a tribute image, they offered a candlelight vigil at the stadium last night, and perhaps most importantly, they allowed fans to show their grief, support and emotion however they saw fit by creating makeshift memorial outside Kauffman Stadium.

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Royals fans create a makeshift memorial for Yordano Ventura outside Kauffman Stadium after learning of his death on Jan. 22, 2017. Photo by John Sleezer.

  • When you let the heart lead, true and genuine words follow. The fondest memories naturally rise and help create a great illustration of who the person truly was.
  • When you let the heart lead, you enable others to feel and share in your emotional connection, helping to create a shared bonding experience.
  • When you let the heart lead, you show your true sympathies, exhibiting a transparent sense of loss and understanding for those that feel the same.
  • When you let the heart lead, perfection is not expected and raw emotions are embraced. More often than not, these are the right emotions and the right words to address the situation, share in what others are feeling, and begin the journey toward healing.

As the days pass and the next baseball season begins, many other words will be written about Ventura. His number 30 should rightfully be adorned on the uniforms of Royals players this year. There is even a petition to retire his number, which would be just the fourth Royals number ever. All that will be determined in due time.

In this and any moment of sudden and tragic loss, whether it be a teammate, coworker, friend or colleague, no amount of preparation can prepare you for exactly how you will feel or react. But letting the heart lead will at least start you in the right direction and place you on the correct path of remembrance and recovery.

 

Note: Former big league infield Andy Marte was also tragically killed in an unrelated car crash in the Dominican Republic yesterday. Thoughts and prayers with the Ventura and Marte families.

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.

Three Ways Chevy Made ‘Technology and Stuff’ an Inadvertent Triumph

Rikk

The MVP presentation left many scratching their head, including baseball Commissioner Bud Selig (far right).

After the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series title in five years mostly on the arm of lefty Madison Bumgarner, it was time to present the pitcher with his MVP award. That’s when sponsor Chevrolet received much more than it could have bargained for when it agreed to back the presentation.

Rikk Wilde, Chevy’s sales and marketing regional zone manager – and a local Royals fan – was tasked with presenting the award. The opportunity itself was a reward for Wilde, who is a solid and well-respected performer for the car and truck giant.

Whether it was the pressure of the moment, standing next to the 6’5” pitcher, or emotions running on high after his Royals narrowly missed their first title in 29 years, it all seemed to get the best of Wilde. Apparently sweating, out of breath, staring at note cards, and a chorus of “ums” and uhs” scattered throughout, the awkward presentation was capped off with Wilde describing the new Chevy Colorado (a truck that had been recently recalled) as having features such as “technology and stuff.”

While some may have called it a disaster, Chevy rallied behind its employee after the 57-second stumble that lit up social media with hashtags such as #ChevyGuy and #TechnologyAndStuff while generating an estimated $2.4 million in media exposure.

So what did Chevy do so right in a presentation in front of millions of viewers that seemed to go so wrong? Simply these three things:

  • Reward Effort: Instead of the customary CEO or senior executive, the company gave the spotlight to a regional employee known for doing his job well and respected within the company. Rewarding and recognizing hard work never goes out of style.
  • Reinforce Support: After the gaffe, instead of firing or reprimanding Wilde, the company instead publicly came out in support of their stand-in spokesperson, standing behind their employee by recognizing that possibly nerves and excitement had played a part in the not-so-perfect presentation.
  • Run with It: Realizing the amount of attention the presentation was receiving both online and in mainstream media, Chevy began using the #TechnologyAndStuff tag in its official advertising. Not only did it become an active participant in the conversation, but the move further drove home the point that it was backing its employee … “Like a Rock.”

What the Kansas City Royals Can Teach Brands about Connecting with Their Customers

Royals

The Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, and not only won a game, but have advanced to the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. In fact, they’ve won 11 straight playoff games dating back to that magical 1985 season, the last time they were not only in the playoffs, but won the World Series.

Sure, a World Series run usually excites a city, but what has made Kansas City click so well with the 2014 version of the Royals? Simply, it has been a connection between an organization, its players and its fans that any brand should emulate. So before the Series’ first pitch tonight at Kauffman Stadium, here are three tips on how a company can “Royally” connect with its customers, or rather its biggest fans, and it’s all about inclusion:

Embrace Enthusiasm:

  • Royal Example: The team held an old-school pep rally for the team before the Wild Card game in Kauffman Stadium, which fueled a feeling of inclusion and enthusiasm before the team turned in an extra-inning thriller vs. the Oakland A’s.
  • Company Style: Not everyone may be able to go to the “big game,” so provide an opportunity for them to have access and share their enthusiasm for your brand’s big event. Brand ambassadors can travel anywhere.

Acknowledge the Assist:

  • Royal Example: Third baseman Mike Moustakas launched over a railing to catch a ball and was held up and helped out by the fans. Rather than take sole credit, he pointed to them as he received an ovation in the stadium and called out the fans for keeping him safe in post-game comments.
  • Company Style: If your customers help to “catch” you from a potentially missed opportunity, recognize them for it. It aids in feeling they are truly a part of your “team,” and will encourage the same brand-friendly behavior in the future.

Connect with the People:

  • Royal Example: The players took to celebrating with the fans in K.C.’s Power and Light Entertainment District after the division and league series wins…even picking up the bar tab. It also helps that their play resembles those folks in the city they represent: hard working, crafty, and may not be the highest-touted players in the game, but they work together as a team.
  • Company Style: Ensure your company interacts with your “fans” where they are; it not only humanizes your brand, but lets your customers know you are “one of them.” There’s nothing better when your favorite [fill in product name here] totally “gets you.”

Around K.C., they have a slogan this year, which is “Be Royal.” Apparently following that advice is a good thing, whether you’re chasing a World Series title or helping to engage your fans off the field as well.

A ‘Royal’ Learning in Company Communications

Party like it's 1985...the last time the Kansas City Royals made the playoffs.  (Photo via crowncrazed.com)

Party like it’s 1985…the last time the Kansas City Royals made the playoffs. (Photo via crowncrazed.com)

The Kansas City Royals hold the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Their last playoff appearance? The magical season of 1985 when they won the World Series. Sure, there are off years, but an off quarter-century?

But what has fans in the Heartland most frustrated – in the eighth year of General Manager Dayton Moore’s eight-year plan of turning the Royals into a playoff contender – is the continual preaching of “patience” by the organization. This goes along with other messaging miscues just like the scouting, free agent, or player development head-scratchers that seem to coincide with our boys in blue.*

So when trying to turn around an organization, take these into account…and you’ll have better luck improving your perception among both internal and external audiences:

  • Be positive, but don’t proclaim premature victory. At the end of 2013, Moore stated that he felt “like we’ve won the World Series” after not even making the playoffs. As a leader, avoid making false statements, as well as ones that are either laughable or that damn near don’t even make any sense. This is why you don’t hear companies cheer victory when they miss their quarterly numbers…not even by a little bit.
  • Be optimistic, but don’t overpromise: K.C. has been hearing about the great potential of its core group of players. Only problem is they’re not producing…or hitting home runs…or providing run support. There’s a reason the phrase “Under-promise and over-deliver” has been working in the business world for years; realistic expectations are set and both parties benefit when these expectations are exceeded.
  • Be a planner, but the proof is in the pudding: If your best results of a nearly decade-long plan are, at best, average – as in a .500 ball club – either the plan wasn’t that great to begin with or this is the best the plan will produce. Either way, expect your audience to demand better results, especially your shareholders. Want an eight-year plan comparison? The tenure of Royal’s GM Dayton Moore’s began in 2006. So did Twitter.

Someday, those in the “city of fountains” hope the Royals will again sit atop the throne of the baseball world. After all, if the Red Sox can end an 86-year title drought, anyone can do it. (Although it could be worse, just ask the Chicago Cubs; they’re still cursed by a goat.) They just hope pop singer Lorde isn’t right and that they’ll “never be royals” like they were in the late 1980s. At least use the lessons above and give it to your organization straight…like a nice four-seam fastball right down the middle.

 

*For regular updates on the conundrum that can be the Kansas City Royals, do yourself a favor and follow K.C. Star columnist Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) and Dermatologist by day/Royals prognosticator by night Dr. Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli).