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These Birds Are Flying High

November 26, 2009

In professional sports, unlike some other businesses, it’s pretty difficult to deny the reality of poor performance. How would you like your profit and loss statement published in the paper each morning?

That’s why the dramatic flight of the Baltimore Orioles from last place in 1988 to challenge for first place in 1989 caught my attention. Was it just the bounce of the ball, the law of averages, and a few hot hitters that brought about this dramatic change in fortunes? Curious about the management decisions that may have contributed to one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory, I gave Baltimore’s General Manager Roland Hemond a call.

I reached Hemond’s office on a Friday afternoon, the Orioles were scheduled to play the Milwaukee Brewers later that evening. The GM’s pleasant and professional secretary advised me he was tied up in a budget meeting and asked if he could return my call.

A budget meeting on Friday afternoon with a ballgame only a few hours away! Too often we fans forget that sports is first a business and then a game. Most businesses could improve their place in the standings if they adopted a more disciplined approach to budgeting, but they’re often too busy playing games.

Could he return my call? She had to be kidding. I’ve been waiting two days for my attorney to return my call. A building contractor was supposed to give me a proposal three weeks ago and has been dodging my calls since then. Who returns their calls every day? Only the good ones!

When Roland Hemond returned my call later that afternoon, I knew somebody was “taking care of business” in Baltimore. Oh I’m sure the Orioles have had their share of good luck this year, but good luck has a way of visiting those that work the hardest.

Effective leadership is essential to a successful turnaround. The longer we talked, the clearer it became that the Orioles dramatic reversal was the result of more than just a few good bounces of the ball.

Roland Hemond is an easy guy to talk with, personable and professional – great qualities for any manager. While the business world often thinks of the “turnaround” manager as a head knocker, the Baltimore General Manager seems like an individual who would rather use his head than knock somebody else’s.

He generously credited others in the organization for the reversal of the Orioles fortunes. He talked about the commitment and support from the team’s owners. He gave credit to former Hall of Fame player and current Oriole Manager Frank Robinson. He praised Robinson’s patience in developing the young Oriole players.

Revitalizing any enterprise involves making some difficult personnel decisions. Both on and off the field, the turnaround of the Orioles was no exception. The attitudes and talents of some veteran ball players were no longer needed.

There are few organizations that haven’t faced the problem of a valued veteran employee who has been promoted to a higher level of responsibility where things didn’t work out. A difficult situation that is often allowed to go too long resulting in a loss for all concerned.

Cal Ripken Sr. had been the Orioles third base coach for many years prior to becoming their manager in 1987. Mid way through the disastrous 1988 season he had to be relieved of his responsibilities. GM Hemond and new manager Robinson were smart enough to retain Ripken as a coach for 1989. Pride didn’t interfere with good decision making on either side.

While that’s a text book solution to a common personnel problem, it was executed with uncommon professionalism by all involved. Instead of managing the last place Orioles, Ripken is back doing what he does best for a pennant contender.

It’s not uncommon for the physical plant of a struggling business to need repairs. The Baltimore’s ballpark was no exception. Late in the disastrous 1988 season an agreement was signed for a new stadium, but that wouldn’t be ready for several years.

While unseen by the fans in the ballpark, the Oriole’s management invested in refurbishing the hitting and batting tunnels underneath Memorial Stadium. The coaching and practice that takes place in these “back rooms” are major contributors to the confident attitude and improved performance of this young Oriole team.

While new uniforms are a visible indicator of the new image of the Orioles, it’s the bodies inside those uniforms that really count. GM Hemond went out and hired the strength coach from the University of West Virginia to put his young ballclub on a year round conditioning program.

A successful turnaround depends on the projection of a new image, building positive attitudes, and creating higher expectations. It seems to me that the management of the Orioles have been making some good business decisions.

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